Friday, March 26, 2010

Book 18: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on Earth. At least, that's his assumption. A plague has infected the world's population and turned everyone into vampires. Even the dead have returned to life and seek blood. As the last man, Neville is stalked every night by the undead. He has turned his home into a fortress, keeping himself safe behind boarded up windows and rings of garlic. By day, he leaves his home to hunt and kill the infected.

He follows this routine of hunting and hiding, day after day, for several years, until he questions his reasons for wanting to stay alive in a world full of the undead. Finally, he gives himself a purpose for living. He decides to figure out exactly what caused the vampiric infection and how to cure it. Along the way, he meets a woman, Ruth, who appears to also be alive like him. He brings her back to his house and as they talk about their lives before the plague and discuss his theories on the plague, he grows suspicious and begins to wonder if she is infected and simply hasn't changed yet. So he tests her blood and gets his answer, but it is not the one he wanted, and he never could have imagined what she has in store for him.

I've seen "The Omega Man" and "I Am Legend," two of the four different movies based on this novel. While both movies draw from the story, they both contain significant changes to the details of the book, like what causes the changes and how things end. It was interesting to see the differences, but it seems to me that both adaptations ignored the main theme of the story. In Neville's mind, the infected are monsters, deadly creatures who must be destroyed. But to those who are infected but not fully changed, Neville himself is the monster, killing those who were both undead and those who were alive when infected without bothering to determine the difference. He is the monster, and as such must be destroyed, and his deeds will pass into legend (hence the title).

This is the first of Matheson's work that I've read. A lot of his works have been adapted into movies and tv shows: "What Dreams May Come," "Stir of Echoes," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" from the Twilight Zone. I can see why his stuff's been optioned again and again - he has some fantastic ideas here. However, the fulfillment of said ideas sometimes falls a little flat. And there were interesting flashbacks that went nowhere - what happened to his daughter, Kathy? How close were he and Ben Cortman? What happened when his wife, Virginia, showed up at his door after he'd buried her? Overall, it's an enjoyable read, and a good addition to my apparently end-of-the-world/dystopian themed CR.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book 17: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

"Catching Fire" is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Spoilers ahead for those who've not read the first book.

Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12 after their risky death-by-poisonous berries gambit pays off and they both win the Hunger Games. Things are strained between the two, as Katniss has revealed to Peeta that she doesn't share his feelings as strongly as he does. Katniss finds herself thinking of her friend Gale in a different way, and her relationship with Peeta confuses her.

As the victors of the Games, Peeta and Katniss are to embark on a Victory Tour of the districts and the Capitol. On the eve of the Tour, Katniss gets a surprise visit from President Snow. Snow is less than pleased with the way Katniss thwarted the Capitol's rules and managed to keep both herself and Peeta alive. She also learns that her actions have been viewed as rebellious and have inspired the people in the other districts to attempt their own rebellions. Snow wants her to help him keep the masses from rebelling by playing up the star-crossed lovers story that she and Peeta concocted during the Games, in the hopes of making her seem less like someone who was fighting the Capitol and more like someone driven to extremes by love. This, unfortunately, means one thing: she will have to marry Peeta and give up any hope of a life with Gale.

As it's the 75th anniversary of the Games, this year is also known as a Quarter Quell, in which the rules for the Games are changed to make things more interesting for the viewers. For example, in the 50th anniversary Quell, twice the number of tributes were sent into the Games. This year, the rule seems aimed directly at Katniss: the tributes will be drawn from the existing pool of victors. As Katniss is the only female victor for District 12, that means she's going back into the arena - and this time, she knows the Capitol will do anything it can to ensure that she doesn't make it back.

I devoured this book. I simply could not put it down. Collins does a fantastic job of drawing you in and making you care about these characters. I'm not ashamed to admit I teared up at the scene where Katniss came face to face with Rue's family during the Victory Tour. The way the people of Rue's district honored her was touching.

Lionsgate has reportedly bought the rights to the series, which thrills me. Even better, Collins herself will be adapting the book herself. So here, I'd like to make a plea to Collins and the producers: Please, please, please don't let this turn into Twilight redux! Yes, Katniss is torn between Peeta and Gale, but it runs so much deeper than the vampire-werewolf-numbnuts triangle that Meyers created. Katniss is forced into a relationship with Peeta because she believes it's the only way to protect her mother, Prim, and even Gale - if she does what the president wants, then they will be safe. But, of course, their relationship is complicated and not all for show. She's a beautifully drawn character, complex and confused about what's happening to her and what's the right thing to do not only for herself and her own happiness but for the lives of her friends, family, and even those across Panem who plot to overthrow the Capitol and look to her as the symbol of the growing revolution - she is the Mockingjay (from the pin she wore in the arena).

The third book doesn't come out until August. I haven't looked forward to a release since the final Harry Potter, so it's nice to have something to look forward to... even if I am horribly impatient and want it now!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book 16: One Second After by William R. Forstchen

William R. Forstchen, professor of history at Montreat College, has written many books and articles on military history and technology. In his latest book, he's used his extensive knowledge on the subjects as well as his knowledge of electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) to create a terrifying possible future for our country.

An EMP, according to Wikipedia, is "a burst of electromagnetic radiation that results from an explosion (especially a nuclear explosion) or a suddenly fluctuating magnetic field. The resulting electric and magnetic fields may couple with electrical/electronic systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges." Forstchen believes that EMPs pose a very real threat to the United States - one of our enemies could detonate a large nuclear weapon above the US and the resulting wave could potentially knock out all electrical devices and bring our country to a complete halt, throwing us back into the Dark Ages. We're not talking a minor power outage - these EMPs if powerful enough could do damage that takes months or years to fix.

In the novel, John Matherson, a professor of history at Montreat College in NC (like the author), is preparing for his daughter Jennifer's birthday when they experience a power outage. Only, this isn't like any normal power outage. Days pass and there's no sign of any electricity. Cars have completely stopped working, coming to dead stops in the middle of the streets. People begin to panic, raiding grocery stores and fighting at the pharmacy to get their prescription medications. John, a friend of the local law enforcement and a respected citizen due to his position at the college, his military background, and his vast knowledge of history, drops in to see the mayor and the chief of police. There's been no communication with any other cities, including Asheville, the nearest big town. John has a theory as to what's happening - he believes an EMP has destroyed all the electrical devices in the city, and in other cities as well, judging by the way the town has become cutoff from the outside world.

From there, the town begins to unravel. Martial law is established. Just try to imagine what life is like without electricity - no food can be processed and sold, and the few farms in town cannot sustain a population of 1000s. No medications can be made and distributed, so those who are dependent on insulin or beta blockers die within weeks of their last doses. No phones or computers can connect them to the outside world, so they have no idea what's happening - and there's no hope of help coming, because what they face is occuring in other cities around the country.

For those who survive the disease, hunger, and cold, a new threat looms. Refugees who pass through the town looking for help bring word of a gang called the Posse who have looted and ransacked their way through NC and are headed toward them. This gang has weapons and vehicles, and they burn, ransack, and kill their way through every city, taking all food and anything of value they find and leaving nothing behind. Matherson and the head of security at the college, also a military man, decide there's only one thing to be done. They organize a militia, mostly consisting of scared kids from the college, to stand and fight and protect their town from the Posse.

The book has a foreword by Newt Gingrich and an afterward by Captain Bill Sanders, U.S. Navy. Forstchen clearly believes that by writing this book, he's warning the public of a looming threat that could have devastating effects for our country. The book does its job - it's horrifying to imagine the things that he describes coming true - people being executed in the street for looting; cannibalism running rampant; our country dividing itself as brother fights brother for survival. But... there are no answers to be found in the book. There are no suggestions as to what we can do to protect ourselves from this threat. Even in his afterward, Sanders offers nothing more than the statement that "the solution 'is feasible and well within [our] means and resources to accomplish.'"

The Pollyanna in me likes to think that, should there be a major catastrophic attack on the US, we wouldn't devolve so quickly. But, given the reports of looting and insanity that occurred after the recent earthquakes in Chile, well... I suppose it's not so farfetched. And I did find myself thinking, "Oh my god, I need to stockpile food and water and medicine and I need a gun NOW." But as serious as this threat may be, I'm not 100% sold that it will happen, because even if a country fired nuclear weapons at us, wouldn't our overseas forces do the same to them? Does any country hate us enough to destroy themselves completely in the process? I truly hope we never have to find out.