Thursday, July 27, 2006

Disappointment with Two Writing Divas

Gentlemen and Players, the latest novel by the formerly faultless Joanne Harris, and The Last Mortal Man by the brilliant Syne Mitchell are my two latest reads, and currently in a long line of books that disappoint me with their lack of morality.
Let me just first attest to my adoration of Harris's previous works. Chocolat, a perfect confection of a novel was the first book of hers that I read, and relished. I followed it with the fascinating Blackberry Wine, then the passionate and riveting Holy Fools, the mesmerizing Five Quarters of the Orange and the cool Coastliners. I added Harris to the short list of authors whom I'd read anytime, anywhere, any book. Her prose was always rich and fertile, her characters emotional, fully dimensional and her plots tight and brisk. There was little to complain about and much to praise in her work. Unfortunately, Gentlemen and Players breaks that wining streak by showing us a closed and sexist world populated by awful people who seem selfish, ugly and without decency or morals. The main character is a serial killer who never gets caught and indeed, seems to be sympathized with, lauded and not even sought by the police. Considering the main character kills a child, I found that hard to believe. I knew the secret plot twist before I was halfway through the book, which is saying something about the quality of Harris prose, since most authors telegraph their plot twists so clearly that I usually know it by chapter two. Perhaps this is Harris's bitterness toward her English heritage that allows her to flay the world of private boys schools with such a bitter lash. Most of her other novels are set in France, and the French always come off as quirky, but loveable and interesting, rarely crass, vile and cruel as all the Brits are portrayed in this book. Sick obession and a sociopath are not a thrilling combination for those who like being enlightened, entertained, uplifted and informated by the fiction that they read. As I am one of those people, I felt ill and sad by the end of the book, which could have come much sooner for my taste. And please, Ms Harris, don't do an Umberto Ecco and leave all your Latin untranslated. I hate that.
I have read all of Syne Mitchells Science Fiction novels, too, and loved them all for their blending of hard SF and great characters with action-oriented plots. Syne takes on all the latest tech topics and moves them into the future with true "What If" style, and makes the reader see the problems inherent in embracing technology to the nth degree. I loved Technogenisis, Murphys Gambit, The Changeling Plague and End in Fire. In her latest book, The Last Mortal Man, Syne takes on nanotechnology, and extrapolates it to the end, in which it is used to cure mortality, but only for the wealthy. And, as usual, the rich are always the bad guys. I once asked Syne why she seems to have it out for the wealthy, and she replied, "Because I am not one of them." I find that to be a bit glib for someone whose books hang in billionare Paul Allens Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. She's on the board of the SF Museum so I would assume she has even met Mr Allen. I wonder if she discusses her prejudice with him? I am not wealthy, either, but I certainly don't pre-judge people based on their income. It rather rankles, then, that her main character, Jack is a wealthy scion of the man who has the patent on immortality, and we are supposed to like him, though he is a sexist jerk. He spends most of the book drooling impotently over the other main character, Alexa, who helped to raise him (EWWWWW! Oedipus complex, anyone?) and in the end, all he seems to want to do is dominate her by showing her that now that he's rich, he's "boss" and can run her life. Fortunately, Alexa gets out from under his thumb in short order, yet she seems to have become sexless as well as deathless. And Syne, who has a toddler and should know better, kills off all the children that were supposed to be saved by our heros, Alexa and Jack. Instead they are mowed down by some horrible wealthy psychopath who seems to have it out for Alexa, and wants to see her dead or humiliated, or both. Why the sudden "kill the innocents" darkness runs through this latest book, I don't know, but I find myself worried about Synes state of mind, if she thinks the male protagonist is supposed to be a sympathetic character, plus allowing the children to die for no reason. The morality there is just lame. Syne uses Mennonites as the characters on the opposite side of technology, but because my grandparents lived, worked and bartered with the Mennonites and Amish near Wellman, Kologna and Iowa City, I found these characters to be two-dimensional. These groups were, by turns, less kind and more repressed than she shows us, at least in the 70s and 80s, when I encountered them. There was a rather large problem with incest in the Amish communities, and a problem with un-vaccinated children getting diseases thought to be long vanquished, such as polio. Yet for all the problems this book has, it was an interesting read, and Syne explains her tech stuff better than she has in previous novels. It has a lot of important things to say about death, living a life worth living, and taking care of others as your lifes work. I can only hope that the cover of the next book in the series gives us a glimpse of the perfect woman, Alexa from New Orleans, who parlays her terrorist act into the job of a lifetime.

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