Friday, January 07, 2005

Bestsellers are Different from the Books You and I Read... 

And not just because they sell better.

I've come down from my holiday-bestseller-reading mode, having finished not only the Michael Crichton novel discussed earlier, but three subsequent titles from the bestseller lists as well; books easy to read during the hustle bustle of holidays and airplane flights. Actually, if you include the Roth and Clarke novels as bestsellers, I've been reading bestsellers for nearly a month or so -- but I don't think of those two as bestseller-books; they're literary books that happened to become bestsellers.

Whereas... Crichton's State of Fear is geared for mass audiences. Its prose is simple and unadorned, its theses vastly oversimplified (one must assume) to talking points form, its heroes and villains obviously identified. If you're not sure that the Martin Sheen stand-in is a Hollywood liberal sap, Crichton has him eaten by cannibals. And so on.

Still, it's an interesting book because it is, fundamentally, about ideas. If you think Crichton is being contrary about global warming for the sake of selling a thriller, you're probably right, but at the same time he suggests what I think are perfectly valid challenges to conventional wisdom. Arguments made in mass media are oversimplifications; the truth is always more complex. The most fascinating section of the novel is a discussion with a renegade professor, Norman Hoffman, who talks about the ecology of thought [this is around pp440-460]; the way certain ideas remain fads in the public imagination long after they're discredited by legitimate scientists; the way the word 'crisis' came into vogue after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as if the 'politico-legal-media' complex needed something else to keep the public engaged (in a 'state of fear'), and so overplayed issues such as the cancer danger from power lines, and...global warming. Well, yes. We know not to take mass media too seriously. The idea that 'they', the media and politicians and lawyers, are in some sort of conspiracy to manipulate the public is a perfectly valid and fascinating SFnal premise. The trouble here is that Crichton insists that you believe it. More to the point, does Crichton ever explain why the idea of global warming, if it's really a hoax, is taken seriously by so many real scientists? No. (Let's leave aside the horrific irony of Crichton presenting an artificially generated tsunami as a ploy by his conspiratorial eco-terrorists, in a book published weeks before a real tsunami devastated hundreds of thousands of people.)

And then I read... Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel. Intelligent fluff. A black comedy take on It's a Wonderful Life; an angel comes to Earth at Christmas time to grant a wish--but the angel is stupid and screws things up (2/3 of the way through the book). It's amusing and rife with satire of small towns and Christmas spirit, but the entire story is no more complex than what could easily be translated in a 90 minute Hollywood script. You wonder if the author had this in mind.

And then... Jon Stewart's America: The Book. I like what I've seen of Stewart--I'm on his side--but am never up late enough to see his show. The book is fun, full of pictures and graphics and sidebars, often hilarious and savage in its satire, only occasionally dull and tasteless. At its best, subversive.

And... the first novel I've read by Dean Koontz in 30 years (since I read 3 of his early SF novels, including A Werewolf Among Us, the first time I noticed another author explicitly citing Asimov's three laws of robotics) -- Life Expectancy. Reading Koontz (now) is liking reading air. Every couple sentences is a new paragraph. Every scene is described in meticulous detail, para by para: here's what happens, then this happens, then this, with occasional pauses for reflection about what it means; and then this happens next. Like a transcriber recording every mundane detail of real life. The premise is intriguing--on the day the narrator is born, his dying grandfather exclaims prophecies about five future dates on which 'terrible' things will happen. The novel follows the narrator's life as he anticipates and survives each of those days. Yet each date is the focus of an elaborate setpiece that lasts sometimes upward of 100 pages --what another novelist might adequately convey in a fraction the space. You see how Koontz can put out a novel every year. Moreover, the source of all these traumatic events is...a family of insane clowns. And revelations of incest. And apparently unrelated characters who turn out to be twins. And...

I will probably keep reading Crichton. And Moore. I don't need to read any more Koontz.

And now... I'm back to reading 'real' books, halfway through books by Sean Stewart and John Scalzi.

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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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