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MannyRayner

Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

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New Moon - Stephenie Meyer As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Earlier this year, I foolishly lent my copy of Twilight to Cate across the road. She liked it. Then, when she got a place at college last month, we thought we'd give her something as a congratulations-and-going-away present. It was so logical to buy a copy of New Moon.

Cate zipped through it quickly, and dropped off her copy before leaving so that I could read it too. How could I possibly say anything except thank you?

Well... look on the bright side. I've heard so much about this book, and I suppose it is interesting to see what people are talking about. But, Jesus Christ, Bella is eighteen and she's already obsessing about getting old. She keeps hassling Edward to turn her into a vampire so that she can stay young and pretty for ever. There is some chance that this will result in her losing her immortal soul, but hey, seems worth the risk.

I suppose future ages may consider that this says something about early 21st century Western society. You don't exactly have to overexert your mind to come up with interpretations in that direction.

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So here's a thought that occurred to me this morning, which I'm surprised to find hasn't already been discussed to death by hardcore Twilight fans. Bella is a bright girl who gets mostly As and Bs at school, so why hasn't she stopped even for a second to consider the physics of vampires? To start with, where do they get their energy from? They don't really eat, they don't really drink, and they don't even need to breathe. Yet they're incredibly strong and fast. OK, they claim they need blood every now and then. But not, apparently, very often, and how could they possibly get this amount of energy from the occasional liter of blood?

Then they're hard, "like marble". In fact, if they didn't claim to be vampires, would we even think of calling them that? They certainly seem to be a lot more like humanoid robots. And if you just follow up that hypothesis for a moment, several things fall into place. Their blood must surely be full of those little nanobots that are going to be the Next Big Thing. When a vampire bites a human, the nanobots get into the victim's bloodstream and start restructuring him from the inside out, replacing all the soft animal tissue with something far more durable.

That no doubt includes the brain too; they probably scan it and then map the structure onto software, a trick that's been standard in SF for several decades now. No wonder the "vampires" can think so uncannily fast. But if your brain has been scanned, destroyed, and turned into software, are you still the same person? You can see why Edward is warning Bella that she might lose her soul. It's a bit like turning an LP into a CD, a process that several of my classical musician friends describe in exactly those words.

And, going back to where we came in, where is their energy coming from? Those nanobots must have their own power source too. I must admit that I don't know what it is. The fact that "vampires" don't seem to need any kind of material inputs suggests it's not chemical; nuclear seems more likely. Maybe they have some kind of catalyzed cold fusion, or it could be a post-quantum force that we haven't discovered yet. After all, we're way overdue for the coming revolution in physics.

Also, where did the nanobots come from, and why are "vampires" unhappy to be out in open sunlight? I can only see one sensible answer. They can't have been created by humans. "Vampires" have been around a long time, and human technology was primitive when they first appeared. They must be from elsewhere, which in practice means from another solar system. Probably they were originally created thousands of light-years from here, and have been drifting slowly on the cosmic currents for millennia. Well, if their normal habitat is deep interstellar space, no wonder they're scared of sunlight. They wouldn't normally be this close to a star; they're not designed for it at all.

And here's the thing that surprised me most. In fact, the story isn't irrelevant or far-fetched. If people like Ray Kurzweil are right, it's tackling what could soon be a major issue. According to Kurzweil, the Singularity is supposed to arrive this century, and those nanobots will be a reality. Millions of people will have to make exactly the moral choice that Bella has to make in the book. Are you going to stay human, or allow yourself to be transformed into a godlike and near-immortal being, which might however not actually be you any more?

It's interesting that the books are appearing when they are, and present such a compelling emotional case for allowing yourself to be infected by nanobots. If you like conspiracy theories, feel free to speculate some more here.

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I'm doing my best to like this book. I mean, hating it would hardly be a challenge, would it? But every now and then, I get a passage like this one:
I'd been broken beyond repair.

But I needed Jacob now, needed him like a drug. I'd used him as a crutch for too long, and I was in deeper than I'd planned to go with anyone again.
Aaarrrrgh!!!

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Having now reached the end, I must admit that I enjoyed New Moon more than I'd expected. Of course, there are some problems, starting with the fact that Stephenie Meyer can't write to save her life. But by making it a first-person narrative told by the shy, clumsy Bella, she has found an ingenious way to get around that. Bella's endearing klutziness is just a metaphor for her even more serious problems as a writer. As she keeps telling us, every time she walks across a room she wonders if she'll trip over her feet and end up in hospital; similar remarks apply to her ability to string together an eight word declarative sentence. But she's stylistically consistent, and after a while I found myself accepting her. This just happens to be her voice, even though it's not a very good one.

I also thought that she was a seriously unreliable narrator. Not about factual events; to start off with, she doesn't seem to be imaginative enough to make anything up. When it comes to telling us about her feelings, however, I found it hard to believe her, and presenting everything as a mass of regurgitated romantic clich├ęs is an effective way to show us how poorly she understands herself. We hear over and over again that she loves Edward, and only thinks of Jacob as a friend. But we also hear that Edward feels hard and cold to the touch. I couldn't help thinking of the wonderful scene in Mean Girls where Rachel McAdams's Cool Mom insists on giving Lindsay Lohan a silicone-enhanced hug; I'm sure that Bella often winces in just the same way when Edward hugs her, though she doesn't allow herself to notice it. In contrast, Jacob is warm and alive, and she genuinely likes holding his hand and feeling him put his arm around her. There are several scenes when she nearly kisses him, knowing full well what that will lead to. It's clear that she wants to, and the excuses she makes to herself about him just being an unsatisfactory substitute for Edward are laughably unconvincing.

I found the opposition between Edward and Jacob the heart of the book, and after a while I decided that the author was presenting something interesting and essentially honest. The tricky thing is that she's subverted the vampire symbol. Usually, vampires represent the young girl's simultaneous dread and fascination in the face of sex. But Edward isn't very sexy. We're always being told that he looks like an angel, and indeed there does seem to be an angelic purity about him. I find it much more plausible that he's representing religion, and when you think of him in those terms several other things come into focus. As Richard Dawkins keeps telling us, a religion is a kind of virus, which infected parties want to spread as quickly as possible; well, vampirism is rather like that too. And Bella is very conflicted in her feelings about vampires. She loves the Cullens, "her family", but she is well aware that most vampires are monsters. If you're brought up in a cult-like religion, that's not a bad metaphor. All other religions are evil and wrong; your own religion is the one exception to the rule.

As everyone knows, Stephenie Meyer is a committed Mormon. It doesn't seem far-fetched to claim that Bella's feelings about vampires mirror the author's feelings about her religion, which among other things is very down on premarital sex. And that's where the werewolves come in; they represent the normal sexual feelings that most young Mormon girls are taught to deny. The tension between these two conflicting attractions is what gives New Moon its undeniable force, and I found the story credible at an emotional level. I can readily believe that it's just like that to be a eighteen year old Mormon girl with a healthy sexual appetite, and I feel I understand their plight better after having read this book. Well done, Stephenie!