Thinking as a Hobby
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2008-03-18 9:03 AM
Partial Mini Book Reviews
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I'm back from a weekend trip to Texas, and for the 7-ish hour trip either way we listened to parts of several audiobooks.
I find as I get older that I give up on a lot more books...life's too short. But there was some interesting stuff to comment on even in the first parts of the books, so here we go.
Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande is a Young Adult book that the local library had on audio. I like reading YA books sometimes. They're relatively short (more like a novella) and streamlined, and I like any book that's well written. I was also interested to see how the book would handle the issue of evolution. Didn't get too far though. The story's main character, Mena, starts her first year of high school ostracized by her former friends and church members. The reason is a mystery...one that's dragged out (presumably for suspense) but it's not all that suspenseful. It would have been better to just explain the situation up front. In any case, Mena has to make new friends and adjust to her new situation.
Another major character is Ms. Shepherd, her new science teacher, who is supposed to be some sort of role model for scientists, but who is so poorly rendered that I couldn't even give the book the benefit of the doubt, even though its heart was in the right place. Ms. Shepherd apparently has a PhD from Harvard and makes "new discoveries" all the time and receives international awards for her scientific work, all while teaching high school (which she supposedly does because she was inspired by her own high school teacher). This silly representation of a working scientist would be forgivable, but her approach to science is extremely silly. On the first day of class she turns around and asks the class what color her shirt is (she's wearing a jacket, so they've had a chance to see the shirt, but turned around they can no longer see it). One girl says "red", and the teacher says "Wrong!" After a few minutes of guessing she says it's puce, which is a shade of red. When the girl protests that she said red, the teacher says that to think scientifically is to be precise. I rolled my eyes. I'd be interested to know how most teens receive the book, but my impression was that Ms. Shepherd was not only not a believable character, but an unlikeable, anal-retentive one. Apparently there's a showdown between her and the local preacher over the issue of evolution later in the book, but I couldn't make it that far.
Feed is another YA book, a science-fiction work about a future where most people have a feed implanted in their heads that works as a combination cell phone/internet/TV. You can chat with your friends on a private channel, basically making you telepathic. You can watch the football game and instantly look up information, ala Wikipedia. However, you are constantly bombarded with advertising, tailored specifically to your lifestyle and tastes, ala Amazon. The audiobook features these interludes of multimedia marketing like radio commercials, and they actually produced jingles to accompany the production, which is nice.
The book is a pretty well-done satire of consumerism and information overload. There were some problems, though. The most annoying was that the way the feed works was never really explained in enough detail. It wasn't clear how much control users had over their feeds. With spam and pop-up ads, the internet is kind of like an arms race, with advertisers trying to get their advertising shown and users trying to avoid it (same with TiVO). But in the book, users passively consume all the advertising. Even if they found it commonplace or even useful, one wouldn't want to be bombarded with commercials when you're trying to take a nap. But I never got a good sense of when they could restrict the content coming through the feed. As they enter a mall or new shopping district, they're bombarded with new advertising, and there's nothing about being able to shut it off or restrict it, so I don't know what they do when they want to sleep.
The other big problem was that the characters were annoying and vacuous. They use a lot of futuristic slang (e.g., "Unit, I'm feeling meg mal"), some of which is well done, even if it gets old. But they're just not very smart or interesting characters, and even for a YA novel, it feels padded and slowly-paced.
But ultimately, I didn't even buy into the target of the satire. Everyone in this culture who had a feed was worse for having it. There was a bit where the narrator talked about how smart everyone was because they could look stuff up ("like which battles George Washington fought in the Civil War") instead of memorizing it. It was a cleverly-done section that implied that ready access to information actually makes us dumber. I just don't buy it. I think that on average, new information channels such as the internet have significantly increased our cognitive capacities by allowing for faster and further communication and distribution of information.
I don't know if everyone rips out their feeds at the end of the book and lives in a media-free utopia...I didn't make it.
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