“As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.” “All Systems Red,” book 1 of the Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells

Everybody who has read this series loves it … except me. I tried this book once before two years ago, and bounced off it. This time I liked it. I guess I was in the right mood for it this time around. I’ll read the next book in the series, but it probably won’t be the next book I read.

The main character of this series, Murderbot, is a security robot, built with machine and organic components, that has hacked its own governor module and could mass-murder everybody if it wanted to, but would rather just do its job protecting humans, and watch entertainment feeds. “As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure,” Murderbot explains.

Murderbot’s job is to protect a team of a half-dozen researchers exploring a new planet. It’s a pretty easy gig at first, leaving plenty of time for entertainment feeds. But the job gets serious when the team is threatened by a murderous entity, and Murderbot has to reluctantly get to work.

I liked Murderbot’s voice, their dry wit and laid-back attitude. They find interaction with conventional humans to be excruciating, and far prefer to spend their time with fictional people on the entertainment feeds.

The book’s strengths were enough—this time around—to carry me through things I didn’t like about it. There were only a half dozen characters, and they were hard to tell apart, other than Murderbot herself and the mission leader, Dr. Mensah. Most of the activity takes place either inside a base or in a small vehicle. So even though there was an entire planet to play on, the story seems claustrophobic, like one of those Doctor Who episodes where they drop in on a remote research base or stranded spaceship that’s in danger. Those sorts of episodes seem to be popular with the fans, because the show does so many of them, but they have never been my favorites.

At the end of this book, which is the first in the series, there is an indication that Murderbot is about to explore the wider universe. I hope that’s the way it goes.

I finished rereading “The Shining,” by Stephen King.

The ending of the 600+-page novel is loudly and obviously telegraphed in the beginning. 600+ pages later, sure enough, it arrives as expected. The entire story could have been boiled down to about 17 pages.

Despite these qualities, which would be fatal flaws in another novel, “The Shining” is brilliant. Immediately after finishing it, I moved on to start the 2013 sequel, “Doctor Sleep.” Danny is a grownup now, and he does not seem to be doing very well.

Also, did “Doctor Sleep” really come out eight years ago? I remember the publicity for it and making a mental note that I should read it soon. And here it is eight years later, and I’m just starting reading it. When did time start moving so quickly?

Re-reading Stephen King’s “The Shining”

I’ve been re-reading Stephen King.

One of King’s great strengths is writing sympathetic villains. Not villains you love to hate, but villains you genuinely love, who have potential to turn to good, and you’re saddened when they fully embrace evil.

Re-reading King, I irrationally hope things will turn out differently for these sympathetic villains, this time around. I’m currently about 90% through re-reading “The Shining,” and I keep hoping that this time Jack will pull it together and the family’s winter in the Overlook will go just according to plan, that he’ll stay sober, finish his play, and get closer to Wendy and Danny.

Spoiler alert: It has not gone according to plan.

Also: Re-reading “The Shining” as a middle-aged man in the post-Trump era, I’m struck by how much financial desperation is driving Jack. He previously had a promising career as a fiction writer and respected private school teacher. But he blew that up. Now, this job as caretaker at the Overlook is his last chance to pull things together — he can get all his professional success back, but if he screws this up, the next step is homelessness, for himself and his family.

That financial desperation is explicitly in the text, but I glossed over it when I first read the book, in my teens or 20s. Then, I was confident that as a scion of the upper middle class I was never going to face dire financial straits. I’m not so confident now. (Things are fine for us financially — we are actually doing very well — but now I’m aware how narrow and dangerous the road is for middle-class Americans … like the mountain road to the Overlook hotel during a blizzard.)

Parkyakarkus

Harry Einstein was a comedian and actor from 1936-45, famous for dialect comedy, playing a fake Greek with the stage name “Parkyakarkus.” Heart disease immobilized him in later life.

He appeared at a Friar’s Club roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958, and his act received howls of laughter. Seated next to Milton Berle after performing, Einstein slumped into Berle’s lap. Doctors later said Einstein was likely dead at that moment.

Berle shouted, “Is there a doctor in the house?” and people thought he was joking.

The event was a charity benefit for local hospitals, and several doctors attended. Einstein was carried backstage, where five doctors worked on him. One used a pen knife to make an incision for open heart massage, another used the ends of an electric cord as a makeshift defibrillator.

After Einstein was pronounced dead, Arnaz said, “This is one of those moments that Lucy and I have waited a lifetime for but it’s meaningless now. They say the show must go on. But why must it? Let’s close the show now by praying for this wonderful man backstage who made the world laugh.”

Two of Einstein’s sons went on to become famous comedians and actors: Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein.

Brooks has included subtle references to his father’s death in several movies, most explicitly “Defending Your Life,” about the afterlife experience of a recently dead man.

In a sense, Brook’s career was a reaction to his father’s. The elder Einstein did broad, explicit comedy, but in his early years, Brooks specialized in anti-comedy, pretending to be an incompetent ventriloquist or that he had forgotten his ideas.

Einstein’s final performance was recorded and it’s on YouTube. It’s not particularly funny today. Audience’s change over time, and yesterday’s comedy is often not funny today.

Via “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy,” by Kliph Nesteroff, a wonderful book that I’m reading and enjoying now.