Sunday, February 26, 2012

Nebula Nominated Short Fiction by Ken Liu

This year's Nebula nominees were announced last week and as usual, I've read almost nothing of the entire list. In fact, the only piece I've read until this weekend was Jo Walton's magnificent novel Among Others. I very much doubt I'll get around to reading any of the other nominated novels any time soon but the short fiction is another matter. As usual, most of the nominated shorter works appeared online for free shortly after the announcement (if they weren't already) and I took the opportunity to expand my library some. One of the nominees that attracted my attention was Ken Liu, partly because he's the only author to be nominated twice and partly because I've never read anything by him before.

Liu is a Chinese American short fiction writer, poet and translator. I understand he is working on a novel with his wife Lisa Tang Liu, of which I know very little beyond that the first draft is almost done. Quite a few of his stories are available online in various places on the net, some of which I will probably end up reading at a later date. Right now I am focusing on his nominated works, the short story The Paper Menagerie and the novella The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.

The Paper Menagerie - available here (PDF)

The Paper Menagerie was published in March/April 2011 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is a heartbreaking story about a young man's memories of his mother. She came to the US as a Chinese mail order bride. Illiterate and speaking just a few words of English she has serious trouble adapting to her new life. Her son is the joy of his life and he loves the magical folded paper animals she makes him. Until the boy begins to understand his appearance and toys mark him as an outsider. When he starts pushing his Chinese heritage away his mother desperately tries to keep communicating with him.

Children are cruel, apparently as much to their parents as to each other. The moment when the boy starts to see his shabby little paper tiger though the eyes of his friend and compares it with the Star Wars toys all the cool kids are playing with, is a deeply emotional scene. You can feel something change, a connection break beyond repair. To have something like that happen must be the nightmare of any parent. Liu makes the consequences of the event painfully clear. It is definitely one of those stories that will end up making you cry if you are in the right mood. The relationship between mother and son is the focus of the story but between the lines it is made clear the main character doesn't understand his father's motivations either. It would have been too much to tackle in a short story but I wonder what Liu would have made of that.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary - available here (PDF)

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary first appeared in Panverse 3 and is quite a different creature. Liu got the idea from Ted Chiang's story Liking What You See: A Documentary, which can be found in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others. This collection is obligatory reading material for any fan of science fiction. Liu uses more or less the same format and writes out a documentary. It includes transcriptions of testimonies and interviews, descriptions of the images being shown and of course the occasional voice over. It's a format that takes some getting used to. Perhaps fifty-five pages of it is a bit too much. That being said, I thought it was a very impressive bit of writing.

Liu chooses a difficult subject for his documentary. The history of the Unit 731, Japanese research unit during the second Sino-Japanese War, that did large scale horrific experiments on humans to test biological and chemical weapons, as well as a whole range of medical experiments that rival anything that went on in Nazi Germany's concentration camps. Japan has always been very reluctant to discuss it's world war II history, let alone admit and apologize for any wrongdoing. It is a discussion that flares up once in a while in the Netherlands as well. Especially in regard to the 'Troostmeisjes' (comfort women), Dutch women forced into prostitution alongside tens of thousands (or more, depending on which source you care to believe) women from all over south-east Asia.

The story is centred around historian Evan Wei and physicist Akemi Kirino, who discover a technique to witness the past using an exotic offshoot of quantum mechanics. The method is destructive, each moment in the past can only be visited once. When Wei tries to use this technique to shed some light on the history of Unit 731, he quickly meets with resistance of people who would rather let the past be forgotten. An attitude that is directly opposed to Wei's own convictions.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary is a pretty depressing story. Liu obviously put in a lot of research and in the testimonies the documentary contains, many gruesome descriptions of war crimes are discussed. Although the people testifying are, as far as I can tell, all fictional, many of the events are not. It is without a doubt one of the black pages in the history of China and Japan. What makes this story so strong is the way in which Liu manages to convincingly add so many visions on the same set of events. From the historian who questions Wei's methods on academic grounds, to the politician who reminds everybody of the importance of good relations with Japan and from the woman whose aunt ended up being used in the experiments to the Japanese doctor who feels the research done by Unit 731 was valuable. Liu conveys the full complexity of the issue as well as the enormous implications of having a technique that would allow us to revisit historical events. As the story unfolds, it is quite obvious that Wei didn't foresee many of the issues that would arise.

Our relationship to the past is complex, coloured by current political realities and muddied by cultural differences and Liu captures this all in his story. It is a lot to take in for the reader, a very intensive read, but when I finished it I was deeply impressed by the picture Liu constructs of the stories of these different people. I can't really do justice to all the elements this story contains in a few hundred words but I guess I was most impressed by the way Liu shows the influence of cultural background on the various views on history presented. I guess that is one thing it has in common with The Paper Menagerie, where the differences between Chinese and American ways of thinking are also driving the story.

Not having read any of the other stories nominated, I don't really want to speculate on Liu's chances of winning either category but I can say he is an author whom I will be keeping an eye on. I recently read The Fat Years by Chinese author Chan Koonchung and after finishing it I felt I didn't really know enough about Chinese culture to really appreciate it (despite a long preface and translator notes by people who obviously were very knowledgeable on the subject). These two stories were much more a synthesis of Chinese and American culture and as such less impenetrable for someone with a western (but not American) cultural background. These two stories make me very curious about how he will handle a full novel.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

Two of my friends wanted me to read The Hunger Games, one of the big hits in the YA genre at the moment. It is currently the second most reviewed book on Librarything behind, you've guessed it, Twilight. I understand it is going to hit the big screen soon too, which will no doubt will do wonders for Collins' sales figures. I try to avoid books that are surrounded by this much hype but somehow end up reading them anyway. Both these friends usually have excellent taste but it doesn't aways overlap with mine, so I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book. After reading it, I guess you could say I have conflicted feelings about this novel.

In a future dystopian America, twelve districts are ruthlessly suppressed by a central government known as the Capital. Each year, the Capital demands two tributes, boys and girls between the age of twelve and eighteen, to take part in the Hunger Games. This brutal, televised contest does not end until only one contestant is left alive. It is but one of the reminders of the power the Capital wields over the districts. The tributes are chosen in a lottery and every teen has a chance to be chosen. You can enter your name more than once to earn extra rations of grain and oil however, something that severly skews the odds and favours the wealthy. When Katniss' twelve year old sister Prim is unfortunate enough to draw the short straw, she does something drastic and volunteers to take Prim's place. Katniss, who has never left her district, is off to the Capital to fight to the death in the Hunger Games.

The novel is written in an unusual style. Collins uses the first person and writes in the present tense to tell her story. It is a style that takes some getting used to. I usually like first person narratives and the present tense gives the action scenes in particular a sense of urgency I very much enjoyed. For the more quiet or introspective passages it didn't work quite so well but that is not where the focus of the novel is. There were some interesting literary influences in the book as well. Katniss as Ariadne sent into the Minotaur's labyrinth. I understand there's also a bit of Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) in the novel. I don't share the English speaking world's obsession with his works so I must admit I missed it until it was pointed out to me. It is a novel with lots of potential and written by someone who knows a thing or two about the craft.

There is something deeply disturbing about the concept of the Hunger Games. The government that organizes it is of the Orwellian kind. One that wants control of every aspect of life in the districts. It made me wonder if Collins is playing on the distrust of a strong federal government in the US by making it such a totalitarian regime. Cruelty such as described in this novel is certainly not strange to humanity but there is something very counterproductive about suppressing a rebellion by demanding a tribute in blood. I'm not sure how realistic it is to expect this to go on for three quarters of a century without a second revolt.

The Games are televised in a way that is clearly inspired by reality TV, where, if the show becomes too boring, the makers intervene to spice things up. Collins has turned it into a sickening mix of entertainment and punishment, in which the participants are well aware of the fact they are being watched and that popularity with the audience makes them more likely to survive the ordeal. The way Katniss deals with this constant exposure to the public is one of the aspects of the novel that worked very well to me. On the one hand she tried to play her part as well as possible, on the other, she is hopelessly confused by the blurring lines between what are honest emotions and what is acting for the benefit of the audience. Katniss thinks she has a good idea of when she is being manipulated (hard to tell for the reader when the entire story is told from her perspective) but doubts clearly sets in once she realizes she isn't too sure of how much of her behavior is acting.

What is even worse is the reaction of the children to what they are being asked to do. Fight to the death and kill others of their age is not something that comes easy to a normal human being. What absolutely appalled me is not the fact that these children kill, but the ease with which they do so. Katniss is used to suffering and death but not outright murder, yet the idea doesn't seem to horrify her to the level that it should. The deaths affect her but the emotion is muted, not at all the trauma one would expect. I also thought the televised bloodbath was a bit of a missed opportunity. Collins goes though great lengths to show us just how manipulated the Games are but she doesn't really make the most out of Katniss experiences actually taking part in the Games. I guess I felt she was too ready to play, too accepting of her fate and not nearly as disgusted with it as her treatment would have justified.

All in all, I thought The Hunger Games a well-written novel but I can't say I really like it. I don't think we needed quite that much carnage and killing. The deaths in this novel are too easy, too free of consequences and too easily accepted as necessary or justified. I guess your average thirteen year old might be swept away by Katniss' adventures but the underlying story is very dark indeed. Instead of a girl who ought to be severely traumatized by her experiences, we end up with one wondering if one of her fellow contestants had genuine feelings for her. Image and perception are what occupies a large part of this book. It would have been nice if we had at least one character who has their priorities straight. Still, it kept me turning pages. Compared to some of the other have-to-read bestsellers I've read recently, this one doesn't do too badly.  I might even read the second book.

Book Details
Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 374
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-439-02350-1
First published: 2009

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Recrossing the Styx - Ian R. MacLeod

I read the collection Journeys by Ian R. MacLeod a couple of months ago. Not all stories hit the bullseye for me but I definitely liked the way MacLeod experiments with short fiction. It contained some a varied bunch of stories but all with an interesting premise that MacLeod usually uses to the maximum and often a bit beyond. I'm planning to read one of his novels at some point, but since the book buying budget is a bit tight at the moment, that will have to wait. I did remember a story I picked up the story Recrossing the Styx on the SUVUDU website where it is still available for free in PDF format. It also appeared in the July/August issue of Fantasy& Science Fiction.

Recrossing the Styx is set in a future where death can be held at bay indefinitely if you can afford it. Frank Onions works on the cruise ship Glorious Nomad, where a number of supremely wealthy 'post-centenarians' live a life of luxury and relaxation. Frank's job is to be a tour guide on the excursions to the ancient (or recreated) treasures the Aegean has to offer. Frank detests his customers and thinks his life on board depressing. All of that changes when he meets Dottie however. She is the minder of one of the 'post-centenarians', married to the man she is taking care of. Dottie is not happy in her own role as minder and she has a plan that, if it succeeds, would allow both Frank and herself to escape.

As with some of the stories in Journeys, the story is a bit over the top in a way. Frank is disgusted by his clients, resulting in more than a few unflattering descriptions of them. Seen from his perspective, there is more than enough reason to wonder if dying might not be the better option. Then again, if you have enough money to spend your time on a permanent vacation, many people would disagree with Frank. MacLeod does a good job of conveying Frank's discontent anyway, and although he is not particularly sympathetic, one can't help but feel he has a point. His discontent makes him vulnerable though. It is quite apparent that Dottie's plan is not going to work out the way Frank imagines. The story needs a twist and MacLeod delivers on couldn't quite predict.

It is quite a creepy story really, with a title and setting that both echo Greek mythology. Recrossing the Styx, returning from death, carries a price, but the lengths people will go to, to achieve immortality knows no bounds. This story is equal parts dark, disturbing and horrific. Frank in the role of Orpheus, trying to rescue his beloved from the dead. The story has an ending tragic enough to appeal to the ancient Greeks. I guess like MacLeod's alternative histories better but there is no denying this is a good story. If you are looking for a taste of what MacLeod has to offer, Recrossing the Styx might be a good story to pick up.

Book Details
Title: Recrossing the Styx
Author: Ian R. MacLeod
Pages: 18
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2010

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Machine - Jennifer Pelland

I received a review copy of Machine by Jennifer Pelland after a call for people willing to review the novel on Amazon or Goodreads from publisher Apex Publications. I guess this Twitter experiment I've started at the beginning of the year is good for something. Accepting the book was a bit of a gamble for me. Machine is Pelland's first novel. She has published quite a bit of short fiction but I have read exactly none of it so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. As it turned out, Machine does quite a few things I like to see in a science fiction novel. First and foremost, delivering plenty of food for thought.

Celia Krajewski's brain is threatened by a disease for which no cure has yet been found. In the year 2092, medical science and technology have come up with a way to buy Celia time until a cure can be found however. While the doctors work out a way to cure her condition, her body is put into stasis and her mind is scanned and transferred to a machine replacement body. Conditions for this procedure are very strict. Celia's body will age naturally and in most respects, her body will be human. She'll need food, sleep and companionship, and when a cure is found, she'll be forced to return to her biological body. Despite all these restrictions, the program is controversial. There is no reason why a machine would be bound to the same restrictions as a human body. The temptation to stay in a machine body that can be made to last is tempting. Many people feel that disconnecting a mind from a body makes a person loose something vital. Something that makes them human. Without meaning to, Celia is about to become the focus of this debate.

Machine is not the kind of science fiction that focuses on technical detail. How the procedure is done and how Celia's machine body works exactly are only described in general terms. They are simply not that important to the story Pelland is trying to tell. She likes to play around with the what if question though. Machines superior to human bodies is a theme that shows up in science fiction more often, and the question of how human they are is a theme no reader of the genre will be unfamiliar with. Pelland creates a lot of tension by the legal restrictions placed on machine bodies and who can get one, and the temptation to enhance and enjoy the possibilities these machines offer. The idea is threatening to a regular human. How human would we still be if we could switch off our body at will, go with minimal rest and sustenance for long periods of time, become practically immortal as long as spare parts were available and restrictions in shape and power no longer apply?

One of the things I liked best about the novel is that Celia is asking herself these questions as the story progresses. Although she means to pick up her life and continue business as usual but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not an option. As more and more people start treating her differently Celia begins to explore the possibilities of her new body. It leads to a number of disturbing scenes. On the one hand Celia acts and responds entirely human, on the other she does things to her own body that would be shocking if she had indeed been biological. The parallel with people who cut themselves seems obvious but her motivation quite different. Celia is not aiming to create pain she can control, she is trying to convince herself she is no longer human. Hurt as a programmed response rather than a psychological reaction. Her motivations are complex and evolve throughout the story. I had the feeling that I had a good idea where the story would be going after the first fifty pages or so but managed Pelland surprised me.

Whether or not Celia is human, her feelings of loss, hurt and betrayal are very real. She is caught between a desire for her old life, which grows ever more distant as more people turn away from her, and her new friends, people who, although not entirely free of longing for their own bodies, have embraced their new bodies. Some of them have extensively (and illegally) modified themselves and are no longer able to show themselves in public. Hurt as she is, Celia is ready to embrace her machine body beyond the legal limits but at various points in the story she is also pulled back. The strain on Celia throughout the novel is enormous, something that is certain to affect the reader as well.

One aspect of the novel that adds to what is already a dark tale is the sexual practices some of Celia's new friends have developed. Machine bodies that are hard to damage, almost impossible to kill and easy to repair offer all kinds of impossibilities for seriously disturbing dominant/submissive fetishes. There is always demand for such a thing and some of Celia's new friends are taking advantage of that. It's another element is the puzzle of whether Celia is still human or something else. With caution no longer quite as important, she does deeply disturbing things. They clearly stem from very human desires and fears however, not to mention the fact that the customers are quite biological.

Machine focuses completely on impact on the individual. Pelland doesn't spend time on exploring the implications of developments in the novel to wider society beyond what is necessary for the development of her character, which some readers may find a weakness. Personally, I think Machine is a very good character study. Celia is a troubled individual and her story does not make for happy reading. It's at times disturbing, at time heartbreaking and always keeps the reader on their toes. The novel offers an aweful lot of questions for the reader to mull over. So many in fact that a couple of days since I finished it, I still haven't been able to pick my next read. Not many books manage to do that. It is probably not a book for everyone but as far as I'm concerned it is recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: Machine
Author: Jeniffer Pelland
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 365
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-937-00913-7
First published: 2012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Prelude to Space - Arthur C. Clarke

Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke is my second read in the 2012 WWEnd Grandmaster Reading challenge. Last month I read Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (1970), which is one Anderson's better known novels. For my second read I picked something a little less high profile. Prelude to Space is the first novel Arthur C. Clarke wrote and is generally not considered as good as Childhood's End (1953), probably the most famous of Clarke's early novels. The publication history of this story is not unusual for the period. Clarke wrote the novel in the space of a month in 1947 but it wasn't until 1951 that the whole novel was published in magazine format by Galaxy Science Fiction. It was followed by a hardcover edition in 1953. What is atypical about it, is that the novel does not appear to be based on one of Clarke's short stories. Although one of Clarke's lesser works, it has been reprinted numerous times. The edition I have read was printed in 1977 and includes a "Post Apollo Preface", as Clarke himself puts it, written in 1969.

In the year 1978 humanity is ready to for the next step in exploration, the first manned mission to the Moon about the leave Earth. Historian Drik Alexson is sent to London, where the headquarters of Interplanetary, the non-profit organization coordinating the mission, is located. He is to document the event, that will no doubt be considered one of the turning points in human history. Although Alexson is supposed to be an impartial observer, he can't help but by swept away by the magnitude of the effort and the impact it will have on human society. As the launch date nears, Alexson realizes that this event will be his life's work as a historian.

Although science fiction is much more about exploring ideas and what they might mean to society than actually predicting the future, seeing how many details Clarke got wrong in this novel is still almost as interesting as the story itself. Where Clarke goes for private enterprise as the driving factor and assumes the memory of Second World War will change the way people see armed conflict, in reality is was the tension between East and West that gave space exploration a huge boost. The need for the US to prove it could outdo their Soviet rivals resulted in a moon landing nine years before the one Clarke describes, using very different rockets to get there. Many of Clarke's novels describe futures where science, logic and reason triumphs over the petty squabbles, religious dogmas and ideological differences to achieve a peaceful and stable way of running the planet. In Prelude to Space this is treated as inevitable. Would that Clarke had been right on that point.

Another thing that struck me about Clarke's scenario is the use of atomic energy to power these rockets. These days, radioactivity makes people very nervous, and rightly so as recent events in Fukushima have shown us. Some horrendous experiments were carried out testing nuclear devices in the 1950s, clearly showing that the long term impact of radioactive substances released into he environment was still very poorly understood at the time this novel was written. The radioactivity around the launch site in the Australian desert is mentioned several times but not considered a matter of great concern. It might be technically possible to limit the risk of radioactive contamination, even in the event of a launch failure, but somehow I think it be very hard to convince the general public that it'd be safe these days.

Clarke's futures are generally pretty optimistic, sometimes even utopian, and this novel is no exception. Prelude to Space is something of a cross between a love letter to and an advertisement for space exploration. Clarke carefully connects the historical desire to travel to the stars, early science fiction and lots of technological developments, all leading to this one momentous occasion. The moment when humanity will finally leave its cradle and first set foot on a strange world. A first step on a path from which there will be no turning back. Where that path will lead, Clarke doesn't dare predict but he seems to be quite sure it is one we must take to ensure survival of the species. The author may overdo it a little in the text but his enthusiasm is contagious. It was almost enough to make me wonder why the hell we are not on our way to Mars already.

This is the tenth novel by Clarke I have read, spanning his entire career, and from those is seems obvious that Clarke didn't change his approach to writing a whole lot during his seven decades as a published author. Some sections of the novel are highly technical, with the science of space travel the main character. Alexson is the vehicle that allows Clarke to show the events leading up to the launch from up close, but he seems to have very little interest in the man himself (perhaps not altogether surprising, he strikes me as a bright but not very interesting fellow). You don't read Clarke for his well rounded characters or complex plots but for the hard science and Clarke's visions of what they may mean for future society.

Sixty-five years after it was written Prelude to Space is badly dated in just about every aspect of the story. From the technical developments to the blatant sexism that plagued science fiction in those days. On top of that, Clarke wrote a novel that reads like propaganda for a space program. It is very effective propaganda though. Despite all the novel's flaws, you can't help but be caught up in the excitement of the enterprise and the possibilities of space travel, many of which still haven't been realized. Clarke's optimism has been proven unfounded in some ways but the drive to explore space is still there. This novel might well have been an inspiration to some teenager in the 1950s to pursue a career in physics or astronomy. Clarke has gone on to write more challenging novels but for a debut, it's a decent read.

Book Details
Title: Prelude to Space
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: New English Library
Pages: 176
Year: 1977
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: unknown
First published: 1951

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Mammoth Hunters - Jean M. Auel

The Mammoth Hunters, the third book in Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series, followed relatively quickly after the publication of The Valley of Horses. After this one, the gap between books increase. It would take Auel 26 years to get the last three published. I guess it was a good thing that Auel took more time for the fourth book. The Plains of Passage is not up to the standard of The Clan of the Cave Bear but it certainly beats this third volume. Still, there is something very readable about these books. She never managed to get close to the level of the first book but millions have devoured the other five anyway. Unfortunately, that still doesn't make this a good book.

Ayla and Jondalar meet a group of Mamutoi, Mammoth Hunters of the Plains north of the territory Ayla grew up in. It is her first encounter with a group of people and her introduction into modern human society. In their cold and mostly treeless environment, they survive by using every part of the largest animal on the plains. Including their bones as building material and fuel. Although they are not Jondalar's people, he's met other Mamutoi before and is much better prepared to blend into their society. For it is a complete culture shock. Their relationship is put to the test when Ayla finds acceptance she's been craving among the Mamutoi, and worse, one of their men takes an interest in her.

I guess I'd better start with the major problem with this novel and get it over with. The most important plot element of this novel is a love triangle between Ayla, Jondalar and the Mamutoi carver Ranec. He is portrayed as the opposite of Jondalar and very attractive in a way. Creative, witty and charming, he has no problem getting her attention. Something that enrages Jondalar. Jealousy is one of his very few negative character traits. The whole thing is one of the steps on Ayla's quest to introduce monogamous relationship/marriage and patriarchal cultures. Some people have interpreted the series as a whole as a fall from innocence for humanity. The sexual freedom and equality between the sexes crushed between the need to make sure your children are your own.

I've never been too impressed with the idea that prehistoric man didn't know that sex leads to children but the complications and high school drama it leads to in The Mammoth Hunters is an absolute low in the series. The misunderstandings are so unbelievable that I was tempted to skim those particular passages. Unfortunately this conflict covers most of the novel. I guess you could see the crisis as necessary for Ayla to completely let go of her past with the Clan and her son who still lives among them, or for Jolandar to accept all aspects of Ayla's personality (and past). In a way Auel accomplishes quite a bit in this novel but I don't think we needed Ranec as a catalyst to do all that.

As in previous novels, Auel weaves in a lot of details on the day to day life of the Mamutoi. Leather working in particular gets a lot of attention, with ways to produce various shades and decorations being discussed in detail. As usual Auel's research is meticulous. The huge amounts of work it took to produce clothing but also things not directly related to survival are staggering when you think about it. Auel also includes some archeologies finds, a particular kind of Venus figurine produced by Ranec appears to be inspired by finds in the Ukraine. Although Venus figurines were found all over Europe, these appear to be linked to the region. A recent technical development, the needle, also makes an appearance. The production of it is quite an interesting process if you can overlook your annoyance of it being yet another innovation linked to Ayla.

Archaeological finds don't give us many clues on what kind of a society our prehistoric ancestors may have had. In some ways Auel does a good job on speculating how they would have dealt with the confinement in a small dwelling during the long winter months. In a way, they don't deal with tension between people that different from what Auel describes in The Clan of the Cave Bear, by allowing each other a surprising degree of freedom within the framework of their society. One might see it as overly utopian, a society functioning almost as a perfect democracy, but I think she injects enough darker human traits into it to make it interesting. Auel hints at raiding and even full scale war and although Ayla doesn't experience either, the strained relationship with a neighboring people shows at least some of the Mamutoi have hands on experience.Their motivations to risk fighting remain unclear however. I thought it was a subject that could have done with more attention.

The Mamutoi concept of status plays an important part in their interactions with other groups of Mammoth Hunters. It is not a subtle as the idea of status of the Clan but certainly no less complicated. Status is a source of competition but also leads to jealousy, avarice and even hat. One of the cultural concepts I did wonder about the practice of setting a bride price and how this could clash with the freedom of choice the Mamutoi women have to select their mates. The novel does not go into it in much detail but it sounds like this freedom of choice could clash with the advantages of increased status for the whole group. It seems like something that would have been worthwhile to explore.

I guess that if you can put up with the high soap opera level of this book, there are some enjoyable elements to be found in the book. Personally, I had serious trouble not being distracted by the sheer unlikeliness of the adventures of our prehistoric Mary Sue to enjoy it. There were more than a few opportunities to create some more depth in the story but Auel seems to insist on ignoring those in favor of a relationship crisis the novel could have done without. Given my preferences, The Mammoth Hunters is clearly not a book for me.

Book Details
Title: The Mammoth Hunters
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 723
Year: 1986
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-17302-2
First published: 1985