Book review: Behemoth, Scott Westerfeld

So I’m not a huge fan of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series – it didn’t really grab my imagination. On the other hand, the Leviathan series reaches into my brain, rips my imagination right out of its imagination-tubes (that’s how brains work, right?), tears it into pieces, and eats them.

When I reviewed book one in the trilogy, Leviathan, I dubbed it “ace”. Book two, Behemoth, is therefore ace-er. The elements that made Leviathan such a great read – World War I alternate history setting, genetically altered beasties, clanking steam-powered machines, girls-disguised-as-boys, ripping adventure – are ramped up as we follow our heroes Deryn and Alek to Constantinople as they attempt to diffuse the tension between the Darwinists (the rough equivalent to our world’s Allies) and the Clankers (the Central powers).

I’ve noted before that Westerfeld excels at world-building, and his research trip to Turkey while prepping Behemoth definitely paid off with the richness of the settings.

(This next paragraph has some spoilers for the plot, so skip it if you’re yet to read the book.) So I suppose my criticisms of the book are really just frustrations with the fact that I have to wait a while for part three: though the relationship between Deryn-disguised-as-Dylan and Alek thickens nicely, it feels like he should’ve discovered her true gender by now – that the tension will be dragged out to the next instalment is a bit much.

(Actually, my biggest criticism with the book is nothing to do with Westerfeld: the cover of book two doesn’t match the cover of book one. I hate when publishers switch the covers mid-series!)

On the other hand, the mysterious eggs in Leviathan hatch into something chin-scratchingly intriguing (not to mention unbearably cute) in Behemoth, and Westerfeld (who must have been inspired by this video when he wrote in this character) drops tantalising hints that this subplot will have an awesome pay-off in book three, Goliath – which I have high hopes will be the ace-est in the trilogy.


Short story: On a Windblasted Day Through the Door Came the Queen

The Captive Robin

The Captive Robin, by John Anster Fitzgerald

It began on a day that was wet and was cold,
just my sister and I in a house that was old.

“While we’re out, you be quiet!” our parents had scolded,
so we sat at the window, hands quietly folded,

watching the storm give our garden a lashing.
And then! From upstairs! Such a thunderous crashing!

Had the roof blown away? Then the crash crashed again!
My sister cried out, but I leapt up and then

dashed straight up the steps to the source of the sound.
On the landing I stopped, stunned by what I had found:

‘Tween two flights of stairs, in the wall, was a door.
Though we’d lived here for months, I’d not seen it before.

It was green, very tall, but remarkably thin –
and something was knocking so hard from within.

I reached for the knob. “Don’t touch it!” Grace cried.
Her green eyes flashed, fearful, as I pulled the door wide… … 


Book review: The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks

World War Z is one of the all-time greatest books of all time, so of course I rushed out to read its forebear The Zombie Survival Guide with the frightening speed of a 28 Days Later-style zombie ((which, it’s made clear in Survival Guide, aren’t real zombies, who are lumbering idiots fixated only with feasting on the flesh of the living)).

I was not disappointed: Brooks’s style is both weirdly realistic, darkly humorous, and incredibly detailed. The man has given a lot of thought to zombies and how one might escape them. And you have to respect that. (Though I disagree with his contention that remaining in a dense urban area following the zombie apocalypse is a bad idea. Once the majority of the population flees the zombies are sure to disperse after them, leaving you in safety, or relative safety at least, and surrounded by plentiful supplies. Right…?)

But if you’re not a huge zombie aficionado and one zombie book per lifetime is your upper limit, I’d recommend World War Z over Survival Guide.  The narrative thrust of World War Z is far more compelling and potent, whereas Survival Guide has literally no story (at least till the final chapters, which detail “suspected” zombie attacks throughout history. And even they don’t really form a true narrative). It is what it says it is – a survival guide – and though it’s superbly written some readers may find that the joke wears thin pretty quickly.


Book review: Uglies, Scott Westerfeld

If there’s one thing Scott Westerfeld is really, really good at, it’s world-building. The guy excels at coming up with these great ideas and then fleshing them out into fully-realised fictional worlds.

The great idea that underpins Uglies: in the not-too-distant future, children have an extreme surgical makeover when they turn 16 that transforms them into “pretties”. Pretties, obviously, are extremely beautiful – their features and proportions tailored to an evolutionary standard of perfection. Pretties also look, more or less, exactly alike: this future society has determined that it was the differences between people of our time (“Rusties”, as they’re dubbed) that made us fight so much. The operation rubs out those differences.

Tally Youngblood is the last of her friends to have the operation. They’ve all become pretties and moved to New Pretty Town – an adolescent utopia of constant fun and parties – leaving her alone in Uglyville.

Until she meets Shay, who’s also on the verge of going under the knife. Except Shay doesn’t want the operation. To Tally’s horror, Shay wants to stay ugly forever. Worse, Shay has a crazy plan: she wants to run away to join a society of dangerous rebels. Dangerous ugly rebels.

The rules and hierarchies of this society are brilliantly complicated (be prepared for some major infodumps dotted throughout the book, though Westerfeld is skilled at weaving them into the plot in a manner that’s rarely heavy-handed), and some of the future technology is just genius – seriously, I need a hoverboard, like, yesterday.

I started reading Uglies for the first time before I read Westerfeld’s more recent book, Leviathan. I stopped reading after a couple of chapters (and didn’t pick it up again till a year later). Similarly, I started to read Pretties, the sequel to Uglies, but I’ve since put that d0wn too. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the books – but there is a certain plodding quality to their pace. Particularly in the early chapters of Uglies, where I felt like Westerfeld deftly set up the first act then draaaaagged it out, then deftly set up the second act then draaaaagged it out.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I bet there’s plenty of readers who will revel (and have revelled, judging by the book’s apparent fanbase) in exploring Westerfeld’s world and getting to know his heroine, Tally. But I have to confess that, on more than one occasion, I skipped to the end of the chapter because I wanted the story to just hurry up.


Is Homer Simpson just faking stupid?

Pictured: Homer struggles to comprehend the theory explained in this post

In ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ Ms Hoover tells the class her lyme disease is psychosomatic. “Does that mean you’re crazy?” wonders Ralph. Another student responds: “No, that means she was faking it.”

“Actually,” Ms Hoover replies wearily, “it was a little of both.” Wiktionary concurs, more or less, telling us “psychosomatic” pertains “to physical diseases, symptoms etc. which have mental causes”.

So is Homer Simpson’s infamous stupidity psychosomatic? That is, is Homer only stupid because he wants, on some deep subconscious level, to be stupid? Could he really just be faking it?

The evidence Homer’s faking stupid lies in the episode ‘HOMR’ – maybe better known as ‘The One Where Homer Learns He’s Had a Crayon Lodged in His Brain the Whole Time’. Helpful scienticians believe the crayon is impairing Homer’s intelligence. When they remove it, Homer becomes smart, which apparently validates their theory.

But what if it’s not the process of removing the crayon which makes Homer smart, but the process of removing the mental block which prevents him from believing he is smart?

To put it another way: we know from what happens later in the episode that Homer does not want to be smart. Homer wants to fit in (well, what Homer actually wants, I think, is to live life as effortlessly as possible, and fitting in requires less effort than standing out). Smart Homer is alienated from all the other cretins in Springfield, The Simpsons’ microcosm of society; only Dumb Homer is able to fit in. Homer’s subconscious desire to be dumb manifests itself literally at the climax of the episode, when he has a qualified surgeon reinsert the crayon into his brain – much to Lisa’s dismay.

But it’s not the crayon that makes Homer stupid. The crayon is just a symbol, an excuse for Homer to believe he’s stupid. The “real” Homer Simpson is a man of average intelligence – he merely chooses to behave like a dunderhead of sub-average intelligence (though generally he’s not consciously aware of making this choice). In other words: he’s faking stupid.

We see more evidence of the Homer’s-faking-stupid theory in ‘$pringfield’. When Homer dons Henry Kissinger’s lost glasses, his subconscious desire to be dumb lifts long enough for him to quote Pythagoras’s theorem (well, he mucks it up by confusing right-angled triangles with isosceles triangles, but I did only say he’s a man of average intelligence).

“Ah ha!” you cry, attempting to poke holes in my outlandish theory. “What about the episode ‘Lisa the Simpson’?” That’s the one where Lisa discovers the existence of the so-called “Simpson gene”, which transforms Simpson men into dolts around the onset of puberty. “Doesn’t that episode prove that Homer’s stupidity is genetic, not psychosomatic?” you ask.

Well, no, because the events of ‘HOMR’ show that the Simpson gene is bunk – if Homer were genetically determined to be stupid, he would not be capable of demonstrating the intelligence he does in ‘HOMR’. (As for Bart and Grandpa: Bart isn’t stupid either – he merely suffers from ADHD, and becomes ruthlessly smart when he takes medication to treat it. And Grandpa… well, Grandpa probably is just plain stupid, for reasons unrelated to the Simpson gene. He did cancel Star Trek, after all.)