Wednesday, October 27, 2010


The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a 2009 young-adult zombie novel by Carrie Ryan. Generations after a zombie apocalypse, in an isolated, fortified village, Mary, a newly-orphaned teenager, strives to discover what is beyond the walls.

A good zombie story isn’t about the zombies; Ryan understands that very well. She does a good job of focusing on her characters’ feelings and emotions, and appropriately treats the horde as setting. She isn’t afraid to embrace the gory side of things, either, and she never gets carried away. The foundation is definitely here for a quality story.

The problem is the protagonist: Mary is a huge ball of hormones and self-pity. Yes, a lot of bad things happen to her, but she spends an inordinate amount of time feeling sorry for herself, pining after either her lost mother or the lost love she never had a chance with (which the reader knows is going to happen anyway), and the first-person narrative makes it worse. Whatever sympathy the reader generates for her on the death of her mother is used up in a hurry, and based on the way she acts, it’s hard to imagine that either of her love interests would want to bother with her – but of course, they do.

Religion plays an important role in Ryan’s tale, since the village is more or less a theocracy, and early on, Mary says that she has stopped believing in God. The religion of the village is strongly implied to be Christianity, but it is a knowledge-stifling, Middle Ages kind of stern and loveless Christianity. Granted, one doesn’t expect traditional beliefs to survive a zombie cataclysm (which would certainly challenge the faith of many), but it feels like Ryan has an axe to grind against religion, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The book is written in the present tense, which does nothing for it. The narrative takes a few shortcuts, and Ryan’s not afraid of some convenient developments. The zombies, for example, never bite anybody when Ryan needs them not to, and there’s really no logical reason why there would be dead ends built into the path. None of this is terribly egregious, but it just feels like the kind of shoddy plotting you can get away with in the young-adult genre.

In short, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a solid premise spoiled by an annoying and severely unsympathetic protagonist. I will be skipping the sequels.


Monday, October 25, 2010


The World Set Free (recently reissued as The Last War) is a 1914 science fiction novel by H. G. Wells. When atomic bombs are developed and the world is threatened with universal devastation, its leaders are forced to rethink war, government, and society.

The World Set Free is remarkably prophetic, as Wells forecasts both nuclear war and the capacity for mutually-assured destruction. And while Wells misses the mark on the way atomic bombs work (his atomic bombs have the same explosive power as conventional bombs, but they just keep on burning), he certainly doesn’t underestimate their destructive power.  

This book feels like a novel only in the sense that it relates a series of fictional events. What few individuals appear here are scarcely characters in the literary sense – other than Egbert, none are developed in the slightest. This simply wasn’t what Wells is trying to do – Wells is interested in the technology and its ramifications, and because that’s what he focuses on, The World Set Free reads like a fictional history book, or perhaps like an outline for a longer novel. This keeps it from ever getting too interesting, and while it’s a short book, it can be hard to get through.

In short, The World Set Free is an impressively-imagined but not very interesting piece of prophetic science fiction.


Monday, October 18, 2010

EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides is a 1949 science fiction novel by George R. Stewart. When a plague all but wipes out the human race, a young introverted intellectual decides to observe the way the world responds to the sudden removal of humans, and, later, works to reconstruct certain aspects of civilization while battling to keep education alive.

This is a thoughtful book: one of Stewart’s primary themes here is a philosophical take on civilization: its pros and cons, what is gained and lost through starting over, and whether parts or the whole are worth rebuilding. Stewart, with the world’s last scholar as his main character, does a wonderful job with this.

But while Earth Abides is all about ideas, Stewart mostly punts on the moral and theological ramifications, as his characters move on quickly when these themes present challenges. In a world where people can’t help but focus on death, that’s a missed opportunity.

In addition to the book’s philosophical emphasis, Stewart’s post-apocalyptic world is generally free of unrest and violence. While this allows Stewart to focus on his themes of rebuilding, his characters are rarely in much peril, and there’s never much suspense. Yet as Stewart charts the life of his protagonist through the years and decades, the reader becomes invested in and attached to the character, passive and powerless though he may be, and this is why the novel is compelling, and why the reader will not mind the book’s many philosophical detours.

On the whole, Earth Abides is an intelligent, poignant and melancholy novel, and one of the finer and more influential works in the genre. Bonus points for an interracial relationship during a hostile era.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

BEN-HUR by Lew Wallace

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is an 1880 historical novel by Lew Wallace. In the time of Christ, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is sent to the Roman galleys for an accidental “assassination attempt” on the Roman governor. The book chronicles his attempts to free himself and locate his mother and sister; along the way he has various encounters with biblical characters, including Jesus himself.

Ben-Hur is full of rich historical detail. Wallace certainly did his research, although his blond-haired and blue-eyed Mary and Jesus are rather egregious and indefensible. The works and miracles that Christ does, and their effects on the characters, give the book a significant emotional weight. Beyond that, Wallace’s characters love to sit around and discuss theology in detail, and there’s quite a bit of solid Christology to be found here.

The story in Ben-Hur is fantastic, but Wallace has written a bloated, flawed novel. Characters and dialogue are flat, the plot often advances by means of convenient developments, and the book makes great jumps through time to place Ben-Hur at so many key events in the life of Christ, which causes his own actions not to make a lot of sense. But worst of all, the novel is all over the place. Wallace is rambling and verbose, and there are too many half-baked story elements: the love triangle, such as it is, adds nothing to the story. Messala is not developed as a friend or as an enemy. A 65-page introduction that does nothing other than retell the Nativity story is unnecessary.

It is worth mentioning William Wyler’s 1959 MGM film that starred Charlton Heston and won 11 Oscars; there have been other films, but it is through that movie that the Ben-Hur story is known to the most people now. The movie distills the overlong, wandering story down to its key elements, developing them to a fulfilling degree, and the story is all the more powerful for it. It’s a great story, and the film, which is one of the greatest ever in any genre, takes full advantage of it.

The novel Ben-Hur is a powerful, moving story not at all well told. It pains me to say this, but the movie is better. Considerably.