Two Books I Didn’t Finish

Friends, family, and the very small number of readers of this blog who do not fall into either of those two categories know that I am a Constant Reader. But I don’t like everything I read – as witness by some reviews I’ve written, such as my trashing of John Grisham‘s The Appeal. And, every now and then, I start a book that I’m sure will be at least a decent read, but I just can’t finish it.

For novels, it’s usually because I find it boring or not well written. For non-fiction, it’s often because the subject matter turns out to be not really what I was expecting, or – far more likely – the author, while being a fine expert on the subject at hand, is simply a terrible writer.

One example of the latter was Bill Clinton‘s autobiography, My Life. The subject matter was certainly interesting. But when it comes to writing, Bill Clinton is no Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon, both of whom write quite well. Clinton’s work was almost unreadable. I got about half way through and simply couldn’t slog through any more of it. It was like reading a poorly translated textbook.

This always annoys me because books aren’t cheap, and even if I end up not liking the book in question, I do expect to read it from beginning to end.

Sometimes, however, I just can’t. Here, then, are two books that I tried to read within the last month, but did not finish.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (2004). Tor Books, 320 pages.

I really like well-written science fiction, and I had read a couple of reviews of Scalzi’s work that lead me to believe I would like his writing. Scalzi is also mentioned frequently over on Wil Wheaton’s blog, and I’ve discovered over the years that Mr. Wheaton’s tastes usually match mine pretty well. So when Wil called out Scalzi’s latest for praise, I decided I’d check him out.

Old Man’s War is the first in a series of four books, all set in the same fictional universe, and all sharing the same basic character set (the book Wil Wheaton was talking about is the last, or most recent, of the four). The novel is set about 250 years in the future.

In this future, humanity has expanded out into the galaxy, thanks to a wormhole-generating faster than light drive. However, it turns out that our neighborhood of the galaxy is very crowded already, and when we start to colonize likely planets, we find ourselves at war with other potential colonists, and sometimes with the local residents of the worlds we’re trying to colonize.

So, the Colonial Defense Force recruits Earth’s senior citizens. Upon turning 75, they volunteer to become soldiers. They’re given a new, young body and have to serve 10 years as a soldier. If they survive, at the end of the 10 years they’re given yet another new body, and a free claim of land on some colonial planet.

The problem is that this book reads like the sad, last few books of Robert Heinlein, when he was getting senile and very paranoid (i.e., Number of the Beast, a novel that I did finish and wish I hadn’t). It’s just wish fulfillment, with very little thought and no attempt at building a coherent world environment.

For example, it’s supposed to be 250 years in the future – and yet people on Earth still live to the same age in the same condition as they do today. They have the same types of computers, even referring to them as “PDA’s”, just as we do today. They live in little towns in America, holding the same types of jobs as they do today, driving cars around, living in single-family homes, just Mom, Pop, and apple pie.

In order to make the story work, Scalzi has to come up with a ton of totally implausible plot elements, such as there is no communication between the colonies and Earth. Ever. And never has been. Nor any technological exchange of information. So, basically, Earth is stuck in some sort of static state, where we haven’t changed in 250 years, while “out there”, they’re using new technologies and meeting aliens. And yet they recruit colonists and soldiers from Earth. The people of Earth are certainly a very incurious, strangely satisfied lot in this future, I must say.

I was about at the halfway point in the book when the new recruits, now transferred into shiny new indestructible 20-year-old super-athletic bodies with libidos to match , have to go to… boot camp. With a drill sergeant. Who yells at them and hates all of them. Yeah, right. 250 years in the future, when they can transfer minds into new bodies, have faster than light travel, space elevators, computers inserted into your head… and they’re going to still be running a boot camp straight out of 1968.

I got the feeling that the author saw Full Metal Jacket, said, “Wouldn’t this be cool.. in SPACE!!” and started writing.

I stopped reading and deleted it off my Kindle. Looking through the reviews on Amazon.com, I see that people absolutely love this book. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. It just is… not very good. And sadly, makes me very unlikely to ready anything else written by John Scalzi.

Me of LIttle Faith by Lewis Black (2008). Riverhead Hardcover, 256 pages.

Lewis Black is Funny with a capital F. I’ve got three of his comedy albums, I’ve watched every special he’s done, and I love his “‘Back in Black” sections on The Daily Show. And, I had enjoyed his first book, Nothing’s Sacred, which was a combination autobiography and observational humor book.

Me of LIttle Faith purports to be Black’s humorous contribution to the current round of atheist / anti-religious tracts like God Is Not Great, The God Delusion, and The End of Faith. I’ve read all three of those books, and while they’re fine for what they are, they certainly could use a good satirical skewering. I figured Lewis Black would be just the right guy to perform such a skewering.

Unfortunately, his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. I got the feeling that perhaps he felt he should write another book, but didn’t have a topic. It reads like an assignment: “Hey, Lewis! Write a book that’s a send-up of some of those atheist books”.

Lewis isn’t an atheist but isn’t religious either (kind of like myself). He does, however, seem to be very superstitious. On one page he’s making fun of some aspect of the catholic church or the jewish faith, and on the next page he’s carrying on about his very good pyschic friend who absolutely can tell the future – and he’s serious about the psychic friend.

My stopping point was only about 40 pages from the end, when I simply didn’t care any more. This book commits the cardinal sin of a humor book: It’s not funny. And Black doesn’t have the scholarly or theological chops to write a serious book on religion, so it just comes off as a meandering, unfocused collection of thoughts and experiences. Kind of like an episode of Seinfeld without any laughs.

Let me repeat: It’s just not funny. If you want funny, check out David Sedaris‘ latest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Now that’s a funny book. As opposed to Me of Little Faith, which… isn’t. I think I’ve made my point here.

So there you have it! Two books I didn’t like and didn’t finish. I guess I can’t call these reviews, since for all I know both of these books might somehow have turned out fantastic in the very end.

But I’ll never know. And I suggest you never bother to find out.

This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink.