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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Brain Crushes, and Book Five: Paper Towns

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Let’s discuss crushes.

I’m pretty sure everyone knows what a normal crush is like. A normal crush is what happens when you know someone and you really like them and want to hold hands with them or make out with them or go on a date with them. They make you feel all warm and fuzzy, and maybe your face turns red when they talk to you, or you momentarily forget how to speak English and when you remember your voice has drastically changed pitch. (Typically, if you’re female, your voice goes up a few notches unless you want to seem really chill and laid back in which case it might go down, and if you’re male it’ll usually go down a few notches unless you’re an actor on Supernatural in which case it’ll go down a whole lot of notches.)

Then there are celebrity crushes. They’re really, really hot, they make the best music or play the best character or have the best hair. They do interviews and talk about french fries (Jennifer Lawrence) and you just know that they’re the most down-to-earth perfect-for-you person and if only you could meet them. Or they do interviews and talk about respecting women (Tom Hiddleston) and they’re the most gentlemanly guys and if only you could meet someone just like that does he have a clone somewhere. Honestly, I don’t really know which celebrities most people have crushes on. I only know which celebrities The Internet has a crush on. I’m pretty sure there are also people who have crushes on d-bags like that guy who beat up Rihanna, and I honestly don’t know what the italicized thought process there is. I don’t. The point is, celebrity crushes are the unattainable and a bit silly and I’m sure there’s a reason we as humans get them, but I don’t know what it is.

I also believe in a type of crush that I call the “friend crush,” which is when you meet someone and you really want to be friends with them. I think this might be an adult thing. Once you’re out of school, it’s harder to meet people to be friends with, and more and more people are moving farther and farther away from their original friends, and so emerges the friend crush. You know people at work, but hanging out with them can be weird and sometimes complicate work dynamics if one of you is the other’s supervisor or boss. Maybe you meet people a few other places, but it’s hard and awkward to go from “in the same class at the gym” or “sells me coffee regularly” to “hanging out.” Hell, it’s hard enough to get from either of those places to “having conversations,” if you’re me. But there’s this big, ballsy “We should hang out sometime” that I find almost as stressful as I imagine “Do you want to get dinner sometime?” would be.

I think that brain crushes are the celebrity crush version of a friend crush. When I have a brain crush on someone, it’s usually someone whom I’m unlikely to ever meet unless I finish my book and get it published and it sells well and I’m invited to join John Green and Neil Gaiman for tea and scones because they’re both really curious about the person whose breakout novel outsold both of their new novels combined. (See what I mean by unattainable?) But, realistically: A brain crush is when there’s someone whom you’re unlikely to ever have coffee with, but you nevertheless really want to have coffee with them, because you really, really want to pick their brain about, well, everything. From “What are some of your favorite books?” to “Do you think it’s possible to achieve a Utopian society without completely sacrificing freedom? Why or why not? Discuss.” to “How delicious would it be if you used chili as pizza sauce?” with the natural follow-up, “Would you put any other toppings on it, or just leave it at chili and cheese?”

I have a brain crush on John Green. And I want to ask everyone reading this: Do you have a brain crush on someone? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I’m telling you all about mine, and I think dishing about crushes is supposed to be a two-way street.

The coolest thing about having a brain crush on John Green is how involved he is with his fans and the internet in general. If you’re not familiar with his and his brother’s YouTube channel, vlogbrothers, you should go check it out. He talks about quite literally everything. (I’m using the British meaning of “quite” here, which means “somewhat” rather than “very.” Somewhat literally. So, you know, almost everything.) There’s a video where he discusses and explains health care costs in the US. There’s also a video where he jumps against a wall to try to find out if he’s an octopus missing four limbs, because obviously an octopus would stick to the wall. He’s active on Twitter and Tumblr and, overall, incredibly connected with his fan base. Which I think is just the coolest, and it makes me brain-crush that much harder.

Of course, I developed my brain crush on John Green through watching his YouTube channel before ever reading any of his books. This is how I first picked up Looking for Alaska expecting it to be light-hearted and fun and intellectually challenging, because that’s how John Green seemed to be, and I erroneously expected his writing to be a bit more like his YouTube videos. And, as I mentioned before, I cried and cried and cried and cried and cried. So I read a bit more about him, and learned that he’s just the kind of guy who breaks your heart with his writing, and I picked up An Abundance of Katherines, steeling myself for the eventual heartbreak, and, well, spoiler alert–there wasn’t one. It was fun and light-hearted and intellectual, but not sad.

I really had no idea what to expect when I picked up Paper Towns.

The “Profoundly Moving” on the cover didn’t make me feel very optimistic, though.

Neither did the fact that the book started with two nine-year-olds finding a dead body in a park and discovering that the man had committed suicide.

I think John Green remembers very well what it felt like to be a teenage boy. Of course, I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never been one, but when I read his books I feel like I kind of get it. The narrator of Paper Towns, Quentin (“Q”), presents himself fairly simply. At any point where he directly addresses what type of person he is, he doesn’t paint himself to be this complex, multi-dimensional, beyond anyone else’s understanding type of person. He presents himself as a pretty smart guy who’s looking forward to college and has a crush on this kind of crazy girl at school. And it’s weird, when something’s written in first person, to say there’s a difference between how the main character presents himself and how you end up seeing him, because everything you’re learning about him, he’s telling you. But here, there is. And part of it, I feel, is that he grows a whole lot over the course of the book–who doesn’t? But he also doesn’t give himself enough credit from the beginning, and you can tell. I think it’s so cool that you can tell. At the same time, Quentin’s descriptions of Margo Roth Spiegelman paint her as incredibly complex and impossible to understand. As the book goes on, you realize he’s wrong there, too. They kind of even out. Q isn’t as boring and simple as he seems to see himself as, and Margo isn’t some sort of incomprehensible goddess. They’re both just people.

Of course, that’s one of the major themes of this book. Everyone is a person, no more and no less. And we, since we’re human, have a really hard time understanding that. There are people we idealize, whom we put up on a pedestal and think must be some kind of incredibly complex, intelligent, creative, funny, and overall perfect creature, and by doing that, we kind of fail to acknowledge that they’re people. And then there’s the opposite, the people whom we just assume, maybe not even actively, are somehow less. Less complex, less human. And we’re all people, and we all have a hard time remembering that, I think. And I also think it’s really important to think about that after I just went on and on about my brain crush on the guy who’s making me think about this in the first place. I’m going to go ahead and classify that as irony.

Reading Paper Towns was a bit of a rollercoaster. I started it on Monday morning. I took notes until I got about 50 pages in, then I stopped taking notes because I couldn’t put the book down long enough to write down a thought because I really needed to know what was going to happen. I finished it late Monday night (technically Tuesday morning) and cursed a bit because I had meant to go to sleep nice and early but instead it was 2am and I was trying to remember what thoughts I had while reading so I could write them down so I could eventually write this post.

My brain while reading this book: SHE’S DEAD SHE KILLED HERSELF no they’re going to find her okay THEY’LL NEVER FIND HER AT ALL okay no she’s going to just show up like nothing NO SHE’S DEAD she’s gone forever SHE’S PERFECTLY SAFE no she’s definitely dead I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE.

And the ending still surprised me.

I went in with no expectations, so Paper Towns fulfilled every expectation I possibly could have had going in. I’m going to stop now, because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I leave you with this quote from the book:

“IT IS NOT MY FAULT THAT MY PARENTS OWN THE WORLD’S LARGEST COLLECTION OF BLACK SANTAS.”

If you are even remotely interested in young adult literature, I highly recommend reading everything by John Green. Well, everything I’ve read so far. I’m waiting until right before I see the movie to read The Fault in Our Stars, because I have this thing where if there’s a book I need to nitpick, so even if I read it now I would end up re-reading it before I see the movie, and as much as I love re-reading books, I’d rather wait a bit longer between reads. So, look forward to TFiOS in May or June.

And, for book 6…

This isn’t a re-read. I have never read The Giver. I have been meaning to since sixth grade and it just never happened. So when I came across it for three dollars at a used bookstore, well, you know. I’ve already started it and I’m enjoying it thoroughly so far.

How did I become such a post-apocalyptic young adult literature fan without ever having read The Giver?

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Winter Sick, and Book 4: This Immortal

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I’m going to warn you right now, this review is going to be awful.

I don’t mean negative–not at all. I mean the review itself is going to be crappy and unhelpful.

See, this book shouldn’t have taken me over a week. Not at all. It’s a fast-paced 213 pages. It should have taken me between 2 and 4 sittings. However, I spent about a week coming down with something, plus about two days being actually sick curled up in bed watching Dollhouse marathons on my tablet and trying to move as little as possible so I don’t throw up again.

All this adds up to a brain that isn’t working very well. I’m pretty sure there was a day that I fed the cats, crawled into bed, and asked Mike to feed the cats, and he told me that I had just fed the cats, and I absolutely didn’t believe him. That might have been a dream. I don’t even know. I know similar things happened. For example, I also asked my boss about something that she had hung on the wall that I swear I had never seen before, only to find out that she had pointed that out to me a while ago and we’d talked about it for 20 minutes or so.

And about halfway through my book, I realized that what the characters were doing didn’t make any sense, at which point I flipped through to the beginning and suddenly understood something awful. See, there are some characters who only really are referred to by their first name, and some who are only referred to by their last name, and the whole time I’d been reading, I’d been equating them. So halfway through, I realize there’s no Phil Myshtigo. There’s Phil, and there’s Myshtigo, and they are not remotely the same person.

After I got that cleared up, the book made a lot more sense and I finished the rest of it rather quickly.

This book takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth where most humans have escaped to live on other planets, where they cohabitate with an alien species called Vegans. (Another source of confusion to my sick-addled brain–I wasn’t quite sure why the characters all seemed to hate vegans so much. Were they really pushy vegans who wouldn’t let you enjoy your steak in peace?)

This Immortal straddles the line between Science Fiction and Fantasy, though in general, I would classify it more as SF and recommend it more highly to SF fans. I’m pretty sure I mused a bit in my review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about the differences, but reading This Immortal and thinking about how to classify it, I’ve come across something else that I’ve noticed. I find that most amazing fantasy that I read makes me feel, while most science fiction that I read makes me think. It’s an emotional vs. philosophical difference. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course–American Gods, for example, is definitely fantasy and definitely a thinking book.

I was going to talk about how it’s a little bit of both. I already mentioned the post-apocalyptic thing: Highly radioactive bombs have destroyed most of the Earth, and what life is left is pretty much forced to live on islands. Those who remained on the mainland are horribly mutated and have reverted to an animal-like state. Vegan tourists come to see the Earth, tour its monuments, and take it as a warning of what can happen if they stop living at peace with each other. Humans who have left the Earth and share worlds with the Vegans are treated as inferior and of lower caste, partially because, I think, their species was so stupid it destroyed its planet, and partially because they lack some natural abilities that the Vegans have–we can’t, for example, see nearly as many colors as they can. The people remaining on Earth want the Vegans gone and struggle to maintain control of their planet. “Rachael,” you’re saying, “This is definitely just hard science fiction. I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say it’s both.”

Sheesh, I haven’t gotten there yet, okay?

The main character, Conrad Nomikos, is a creature out of Greek mythology. He is suspected to be a Kallikanzaros, which I just looked up and is apparently some kind of goblin thing that tries to ruin Christmas, and this is one of those situations where I really don’t think Wikipedia is giving me the whole story because I believe the actual word for that is “Grinch.” He is immortal. His son is Jason, of Greek myth fame, and his wife may or may not be Cassandra, also of Greek myth fame, though that was only kind of hinted at and we don’t really know if she’s immortal. There’s a group of Satyrs, a hellhound, and a giant boar. So, definitely fantasy.

Definitely both.

The book follows Conrad as he reluctantly gives Cort Myshtigo, a powerful Vegan surveyor and writer, a tour of what’s left of Earth’s landmarks. They’re accompanied by an eclectic group of friends and acquaintances, most of whom I can’t really tell you anything about because my brain wasn’t working well enough for the first half of the book to really have any idea what was going on to talk about them without giving away major spoilers, but the general gist is this: Some of them want Myshtigo dead, and Conrad isn’t sure if he agrees.

I definitely enjoyed this book as I was reading it, and I loved the second half once my brain cleared up a little and I figured out what was going on. I definitely need to re-read this, possibly the next time my brain isn’t fully clear to be able to actually understand what’s going on, because two half-understandings might lead to a full understanding. In the meantime, I have a few more Zelazny books that I’ll get around to before too long.

And, for book 5 of the 50 Book Project…

 
Paper Towns by John Green. I’m determined to go into this with a complete lack of expectations. When I read Looking for Alaska, for some reason I expected something fun–I’m blaming his YouTube channel–and got something heartbreaking. After that introduction to his writing, I read An Abundance of Katherines expecting it to be painful, when really, it was quite fun. As you can see, the cover of this claims that it’s “Profoundly moving,” which could mean a lot of things.

Book Three: Runaway

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I don’t watch a lot of movies. People think it’s weird. They’ll ask me if I’ve seen a movie that apparently everyone in the world has seen, and, well, I haven’t seen it, and they look at me funny. “What is wrong with you? It’s a classic. You have to see it.” And it’s not that I don’t watch stuff, but I prefer TV. (I actually didn’t much like that, either, until I took a scriptwriting class.) My theory is that I prefer TV because movies are over too fast.

“But Rachael,” you’re saying, “That doesn’t make sense. The longest TV shows are still usually an hour long.” Not true! Each episode of Sherlock is an hour and a half, and that’s on Netflix with no commercials. I know that’s not your point, though. It’s true. Each episode of a TV show is much shorter, but at the end, you know the story will continue next week. A movie, on the other hand, gives you a couple of hours of enjoyment. And that’s it. Story’s over. The sequel probably sucks. You can re-watch it, but nothing new is going to happen.

And before you ask, yes, I’m okay with series of movies, but only if they’re planned that way. I’m pretty sure it never goes well when the producers say, “Hey, that made a lot of money! Go do another one.”

A TV show, on the other hand–you get 45 minutes of original material a week, usually about 13 to 24 weeks per year, for, well, years. And you can curl up with your Netflix account and watch it for days if you want, or you can watch a little bit every night before bed, and it keeps going. The story continues.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Runaway.

I have the same problem with short stories that I have with movies. I make myself a cup of tea, curl up with my book, and by the time my tea’s gone, the story’s over. It sits there mocking me. “Oh, you liked that? Yeah? It was good? Well, you can’t have more.” Thanks for mocking my pain, short story.

However, there are great movies. Movies that, at the end, you still wish weren’t over, but they told such an amazing story that you don’t mind so much that you can’t get more from them. (Though the only movie I can think of right now is Mulan, thanks to the catchy music being stuck in my head, so I’ll have to leave you with that as your example.) And, similarly, there are great short stories.

Runaway is filled with great short stories.

I wrote down an individual response to each story in my actual paper journal that I’ve been using to take notes so I actually remember what happened in the book when I go to write my post, but it’s about 8 pages so I’ll spare you all the gory details (okay, most of the gory details) and try to focus on the book as a whole.

Munro picked the perfect title story. Runaway is the first story in the collection, and it’s not quite what you’d expect from the title, but the idea of running away sets the tone for the rest of the collection. In each story, someone was running from something, though not always literally. And there’s always some sort of consequence, though never really the consequence that you would expect (even though you’re expecting unexpected consequences).

The stories in this collection are sad and painful. And not in a big, dramatic way–no, Munro doesn’t play like that. They’re sad in the way that will make other Doctor Who fans really understand what Sally Sparrow was talking about when she said that “sad […] is like happy for deep people.” It’s a profound sadness, and I feel like a pretentious jerk writing that. It’s a heavy, hollow sadness that lodges itself in your chest and just sits there until you watch Mulan and cry the whole time even though come on it’s not even a remotely sad movie.

I loved Runaway. It was brilliant. I highly recommend reading it. However, I less highly recommend reading it all in a row. Read “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” all in a row, because each one is a continuation of the last, but the rest stand alone and probably should if moods from stories get into your head. I had an unexplainably sad week, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily because I was reading Runaway, but it definitely wasn’t helped by reading Runaway.

My favorite of the stories was “Chance.” I identified strongly with the main character, an introverted young woman named Juliet who loves reading and gets understandably annoyed when people think a book in front of her is an invitation to talk (it’s not). However, as her story continued in “Soon” and “Silence,” I found myself less and less able to relate to her. I felt like I was running into an old friend, seeing that they became someone I didn’t like much, and wondering what happened to the awesome person I used to know.

And that’s what Munro does. She makes her characters become real people. Each story felt like I was opening a window into someone’s life.

I did have one problem with this collection, though. Munro writes extremely intelligent characters, which I enjoyed. However, in a couple of the stories, these intelligent characters have intelligent children, and in each of the stories where there were children, these children called their parents by their first names. There were no moms or dads in this book. If it were one story, I’d understand, but I’ve known a number of highly intelligent families (I like to think I was raised in one), and in all of them, the kids call their parents Mom and Dad. And one of the stories even says something, I don’t remember exactly what it was, but something that felt like I was reading, “Smart people don’t need these silly names that society tells us we need to use. Those are for dumb people. Smart people stand on equal footing with adults.” This is obviously not a real quote. It’s my summation of the attitude that I felt was expressed by whatever the character actually said. I hope to someday raise some smart kids, and I imagine that if I do, I would be more than a little upset if, one day, they just started calling me Rachael instead of Mom.

I suppose Alice Munro can afford to be a little pretentious, though. I mean, she did just win a Nobel Frickin’ Prize.

Anyway! Onto… well, things.

Book Four of the 50 Book Project will be…

My cover looks nothing like this.

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny. I picked up a few Zelazny books at my favorite used bookstore a while back. My copy has this great old book smell and this horribly cheesy Fantasy Novel Cover. Zelazny is one of my favorite authors, but I haven’t read as much of his work as I’d like–it’s often fairly hard to find, so I was thrilled to find a bunch that I hadn’t read for about 3 dollars a piece. Can’t wait to start it!

Book Two: The Golem and the Jinni

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I just finished the most amazing book.

I should warn you, particularly those of you who don’t know me: I love books. I mean, I’m sure you could figure that out simply by the fact that I’m doing this whole 50 Book Project thing and blogging about it, but you still might not fully understand. I don’t like books. I don’t enjoy reading certain books. I love books. Sure, there are a few out there that I’ll read and say, “Wow, that was horrible.” It’s happened. There have been books that I read the first few pages of and said, “I just. Can’t.” There have even been books–and I’m a bit ashamed to admit this–books like the Twilight series, which I’ll read once and think, “Well, that was kind of fun and mindless,” and then months or years later, I’ll be in the middle of something really stressful (it was finals, this time) and say, “You know, I need something completely mindless, let’s pick that up again just so I have something to read while falling asleep,” and I suddenly recoil in horror upon the realization that I didn’t fully notice how horrible something was the first time around. (Sorry, Twilight lovers, but I’m not sorry.) (My test to determine whether a book is well-written is actually to pick it up again. The story can carry almost anything the first time around, but for me to read it again, it needs craft.)

These instances are few and far between.

There are very few books that I read and say, “That was good,” or, “That was okay.” Occasionally, perhaps a “That was beautifully written, though not really my style,” but even then I’m usually still all for it because I’m a sucker for beautiful writing. But most books, I love. I am a non-discriminating lover of books. You’re unlikely to ever read a bad review here. I don’t know if I’m just incredibly good at picking out books or if I’m simply not picky. Either is possible.

So please, let it mean something when I say that of all the books out there that I have read and absolutely loved, this one stands out.

Every once in a while, as I was reading this, I would pause for a moment and marvel at the fact that this was Helene Wecker’s first novel. Her first novel! I can only hope that some day, when I get there, my first novel will be as beautiful as this.

The Golem and the Jinni is a fairy tale all grown up, filled with magic, suspense, heroes, and villains. Throw in some very adult themes: Surviving the drudgery of day to day life. Feeling like there’s more out there for you. Needing someone, but trying not to. Learning to look back at what you’ve lost. And, lastly, what it means to be a person. Now add some beautiful writing. I am seriously wondering what altars Wecker sacrificed at in order to write like this. Zelazny and Jane Austen? I’m not even sure.

I picked up this book at the perfect time: As I suspected, there’s nothing like a bit of fantasy to make the winter wonderland I’m… or… I was in the middle of (until it got up to about 50 degrees today) seem a little bit more wonderful. I’m tiring of the cold, but for a few moments after I was walking back to work from my lunch break yesterday, watching the snow fall around me on our actually-quite-beautiful downtown (and, yes, trying not to slip on the ice underneath the snow), the beauty of the real world mirrored the beauty of the story I was engrossed in.

I’m reluctant to write too many spoilers, simply because the book is still so new–it’s just now out in paperback–so fewer people will have read it and be able to actually read the spoilers without them actually, well, spoiling. But I have to say a few things, right? So.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Why are you still reading? I said, spoilers ahead!

Okay, first, minor spoilers for those of you who haven’t read it but still keep reading even after I warned about spoilers (seriously guys stop it, this paragraph is your last chance). I love how contrasted Chava and Ahmad are from the beginning. Particularly, I love that we see Chava’s entire life, from her conception to her creation to her awakening on the ship to her time in New York–but we see so little of the Ahmad’s. He’s lived for hundreds of years, so how could we? Yet it’s revealed in these lovely little snippets–a memory here, a memory there–until his backstory and the current-day storyline are completely intertwined in a slightly unexpected way. I loved seeing him follow caravans and build his glass palaces, and develop more and more interest in humans as he does this, and seeing his freedom as he flies through the Syrian desert juxtaposed with his confinement in New York. It brought his pain at his imprisonment to life, and allowed us to see the freedom he longed for as he crafted his birds and his tin ceiling.

Now onto the bigger stuff. You may have noticed that I said “slightly unexpected” up there. I knew, I just knew, as soon as Schaalman decided to go to New York to seek out eternal life, that he had something to do with the evil wizard who imprisoned the Jinni in the first place. I don’t think I was supposed to know this–I think I was supposed to be worried about Chava. And I was! I knew he’d find her, and he’d try to either destroy her or take control over her (since the Rabbi was conveniently dead at this point, which made me very upset but was necessary)– but I just had a feeling that finding her would be a side effect to finding Ahmad and revealing whatever connection he had to the wizard. She tricked me, though. I had a flickering moment of oh I bet it’s the same person! but I didn’t latch on to that idea because we had seen Schaalman’s whole backstory, and seen him grow up, and reincarnation just seemed, well, unlikely. Oh, but it was amazing!

And can I just say how much I loved Ice Cream Saleh? I was so happy to see the role he eventually played.

END SPOILERS. YOU CAN LOOK AGAIN NOW.

I just, I absolutely loved this book. Have I said that yet? I’m tempted to say something incredibly cheesy, like “An Instant Classic!” (but I won’t). A new favorite, though, to add to that ever-growing pile of favorites. And to my shelf that was previously reserved for Gaiman and Zelazny.

And, for book 3, I’ll be reading

Runaway by Alice Munro. I read a short story by her for my book club (“Train”) and loved it, and then thought about it, and realized with horror that I had never read Alice Munro before. On the way out of our meeting (which is, conveniently, at a bookstore), I grabbed the first book by her that I saw. My copy doesn’t say “stories” on the bottom like that, though–I didn’t even realize it was short stories until I went to grab that picture to post! And since I loved “Train” so much, I’m not even remotely disappointed, though I’ll still be picking up a novel of hers later on.

Book 1: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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I don’t usually read a whole lot of science fiction. It’s not that I don’t like to. Really! I love science fiction. But I tend to read fantasy a lot more, and when I’ve been reading a whole ton of that and need a break, I tend to lean more toward realistic fiction than something equally unrealistic (well, sort of… I’ll get to that later). The real problem, though, is that I’m so familiar with fantasy that I know where to start with it, and I know where to go from there, and where you’re eventually likely to end up and once you’ve ended up there, where a few other paths might take you, and so on. I can read a review or a teaser or even just a “If you liked THIS, you should read THAT!” and be pretty confident that I’m making a good call when I pick up a fantasy book. I’d say 95% accuracy. And even that 5% isn’t usually bad–I somehow avoid the bad stuff. But when I start looking for science fiction to read, I have no idea where to begin.

I was very lucky, then, that a coworker gave me a list of science fiction starters over the summer.

On it were two–maybe three? I don’t remember–books by Philip K. Dick (“I’m a huge ‘Dickhead,'” he wrote on the side–I laughed), one of which was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So I picked up a copy when I was shopping before Christmas (I had a 20% off coupon at my local indie bookstore–most valuable coupon I’ve ever had), this one specifically because it had an introduction by Roger Zelazny, and I figured I should start my project with it, since this coworker will be going back to school… hmm, I really hope today wasn’t his last day back. I still had 15 pages left when I last talked to him. And, well, it’s nice to have someone to talk to about the book you’re reading.

Anyway, let’s get on with this, shall we?

This book scared me. Not in a huddled-under-the-sheets-in-terror sort of scared, or a wow-I-am-so-horribly-creeped-out-by-that-really-creepy-thing scared, or even a general-sense-of-foreboding scared. This book scared me in a way that I first remember being scared when I was 12 and saw The Matrix, and that, in general, I don’t get from anything aside from science fiction (which is perhaps another reason I tend toward fantasy most of the time), which is: The whole thing seems so possible. Science fiction, I believe, turns into fantasy the instant it does something that makes the reader say, “No, that’s impossible.” As long as it’s reasonable to think that, maybe not now, but in 100 years, or 1000, or 5000, we could totally actually do that, then science fiction is generally terrifying.

And Philip K. Dick is awesome at it.

I also need to say this: Philip K. Dick is a manipulative bastard.

I was upset every time I had to put this book down to do anything. From the very beginning, with the introduction of the mood organ–by which people in this world can turn a dial to select a mood, from 481, “An awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future; new hope that–” (at this point the character is cut off, so we don’t know what the hope is, but there’s hope), to 594, “pleased acknowledgement of Husband’s superior wisdom in all matters,” to 888, “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it,” even setting 3, “a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial”–I simply had to know more about this world. Moods can be scheduled (I laughed at “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression,” we’ve all been there, right?) and adjusted and… well, it was creepy.

I was immediately intrigued by the animals. It was clear that they were very important to the people of this crazy, futuristic, post-apocalypse world. Rick, the main character, and his wife Iran have an electric sheep, and the fact that they can’t afford a real sheep is deeply embarrassing and they feel that they’re missing out on some hugely significant aspect of life by not having a real animal.

I needed to understand Rick’s job. Rick is a bounty hunter for the San Francisco Police Department, and his job is to find and kill (“retire”) androids who have made it back to Earth from the new colonization on Mars. It’s difficult, because they’re impossible to differentiate from humans without administering a test that measures their empathy–the one thing the manufacturers haven’t been able to copy. But the test is getting more difficult to do on the new model of android.

Spoilers start here!

As it turns out, androids who get back to Earth do so by killing their owner and sneaking back under a false identity. They’re not supposed to be here, and if they are, then they’re evil. And there were three points in the book that made me say, “Damn, those robots are bastards.

First: When Rick goes to the Rosen corporation, and Eldon Rosen has him test Rachael to see if she’s an android. It was a rollercoaster: “Your test showed she is! But she’s not, really, she’s human. Oh, but did you hear what she just said? Maybe not! Test again! Hah! You were right all along, she’s an android. Go away now.” I understand that they were testing him, that much seemed obvious. At the time I read this part, I thought they were testing him to make sure he had the right instincts to hunt the rogue androids and knew how to rely on them, but having finished the book, I think, maybe, they were trying to figure out if he was good enough to bother going through all the rest of their manipulations with him. Good enough to need to be taken out of the game.

Second: Right after the Luna Luft interview. I read the interview on my lunch break, and when my “clock back in and go work” alarm went off, I was so mad. I could tell that I was in a really important part by the fact that I was beginning to question every premise that the entire book had been built on so far. And then in the end, it was all a ruse and everything I believed was true actually was true! After I got back from lunch, I spent the entire rest of my shift thinking: Wait, is Rick an android? Is he insane? Has he been hallucinating this whole thing? Or possibly did he get stuck in a coma and somehow wake up and not know and try to keep going about his day as he had been before but years later? Are any of the people I’ve read about so far real? Was his consciousness recorded, saved, and uploaded into an android years later? What is happening? Oh… exactly what I thought was happening to begin with? Oh. Huh. Okay. Thanks for the stress, Dick.

Lastly: At the end, Rachael’s reappearance. I’ll admit, I was PISSED when she told him she loved him. I was sitting, reading, thinking, “Oh my god, fucking hell, you’ve met once before, and you’re an android, and shut up, you just have no effing cue what you’re talking about so please everyone just shut up” and then Rick said he would marry her if it was legal and I’m fuming and then about a page later Rachael reveals her master plan! Why do they always do that? And the whole thing is to get empathy, to extend his oh-so-human empathy to the androids so he won’t be able to kill any of them ever again, except of course he will. So you try one last thing and make sure he goes nuts by killing his brand-new goat. Only an android could do that, of course. Humans are too good.

I’ll admit, after the difficulty Rick had killing his first few androids and all the buildup to the Batys, I didn’t expect them to be so simple to kill. I expected another elaborate ruse. And when Mercer showed up (and we’ll talk about Mercer in a minute), I thought, this must be it, this must be the manipulation beginning. But it wasn’t. And then I realized that it wasn’t necessary at all, because while it’s simple, it won’t be easy, since Paris–another android to retire–looks identical to Rachael, the android he slept with and had feelings for. Simple, but painful. And the Batys after that, well, it’s nothing. He’s done.

So let’s talk about Wilbur Mercer. I realized early on that it’s some sort of religious experience, where everyone who holds onto their empathy box at the same time is somehow connected and shares their feelings and thoughts and pain. Through it, they understand and feel the connection that exists between all living things, which separates them from the androids and makes them part of something greater. What I want to know is how it developed. Was the empathy box made, and the videos inside it recorded, after the philosophy took hold? Or did an entire religion form basically around this one thing? Of course, I have no way of ever finding out how Mercerism came to be, but it interests me. (You know it’s a good book when you find yourself wanting to read up on the fictional history of the world of the story.) So when it was revealed that it was “fake,” that didn’t surprise me and didn’t matter. Though I thought it was really cool how the androids expected it to ruin the humans, when in fact they understood that the importance of the religion is that it goes much deeper than something as simple and basic as “real or not real.”

But Mercer’s appearance–how is that explained? It could have been a hallucination, but then how did it give him information he didn’t have? And then he fused with Mercer, right down to the rock thrown at him. And how did the toad get to him? (I did love that Iran got all the electric flies to feed Rick’s electric toad. I thought her development was great.)

I hate having questions left when I finish a book.

I love having questions left when I finish a book.

And what’s the takeaway at the end? Androids are manipulative and ruthless, while humans are empathetic and good. How do we feel about that? I know I’ve known some pretty bad humans. And even humans that, while not bad, still don’t really have much empathy. And I think, here, it’s important that the androids look just like us. Because, much like J.R. Isidore, we have no idea, when that cute new girl moves to our apartment building, that she’ll turn out to be the type of person who cuts limbs off small animals just to see what happens. So, I guess, the androids are here, among us, and they’re completely and 100% human.

Either that or Philip K. Dick was a crazy motherfucker (but a brilliant crazy motherfucker).

END SPOILERS

So, how about you? Have you read this book, or perhaps seen Blade Runner, which is based on this book? (I haven’t seen it.) Do you have thoughts or reactions? Did you even make it this far? Should I maybe try to keep it a bit shorter next time? Sorry, I do tend to go on about books, and this one was so good. Perhaps in the next year, over the course of my project, I’ll learn to be a bit more concise.

Anyway, speaking of the project! It’s time to start book 2!

Book 2 of the 50 Book Project will be…

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. I was going to choose something more realistic, but I’ve been in the middle of this crazy snowstorm, and for some reason snow puts me in a mood for magic. I’m blaming The Chronicles of Narnia. I can just picture Mr. Tumnus standing there with his furry little legs… anyway! I’ll be reading this next! You’re welcome to join me, if you’d like. It’s a bit longer, so let’s see if it takes more than three days.