Sep 3, 2013

[Books] Henry Lawson Hero of the Robot Revolution

Every now and then one realizes just how much of our book, movie and TV show knowledge is pretty much dominated by US culture. Almost every country imports a fair amount of their media and intermixes it with whatever's local. And as much as I'd like to think that I do put an effort into expanding my range beyond the US, some books slap you in the face to remind you of how little you really know.

This book, Henry Lawson Hero of the Robot Revolution is a good example. It's a book set in an alternate history Australia and New Zealand, whose history I now realize I know very little about. Thus even an alternate history novel with a steampunk flair to things is a little harder to appreciate when you don't recognize some of the key figures in the story that sort of make things more interesting from a reference recognition perspective.

This is not to say the book was a total loss - I'm not that misguided. I did enjoy it although there were other areas that confused me to some extent.

Synopsis: Henry Lawson Hero of the Robot Revolution is an alternate history science fiction novel written by Robert Denethon. The author was kind enough to provide me with a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion of the work.

The setting of the novel is sometime in the early twentieth century with Australia now a communist nation known as the Free Republic Established As Kollectiviti In Australya (or Australya). Henry Lawson once was a poet and had somehow helped inspire the communist revolution. But now he only writes propaganda in service of the new government - at least whenever he's not totally drunk. The world of Astralya is very different given the revolution has redefined a lot of things including how worlds are spelled (more phonetic it seems) and even how date and time is measured and tracked. So a 7 day week has become a 10 day week with 100 Minit Ours in a tweny Our Day.

However Henry's wife has had enough and threatens to leave him unless he doesn't do something about his drinking. Thus the plan comes along to move to Marx Zealand (New Zealand) in order to get away from metropolitan life. Although the move is only tagged as a vacation by the government, Henry, his wife and their robot do get to leave and start a simpler life there. But there in the relative wilderness of Marx Zealand does Henry begin to find out more about what his government is doing.

The decision to go with an oppressive communist government naturally has one comparing this book to the likes of 1984 and Animal Farm. 1984 especially comes to mind given the first person perspective of the book, the government's efforts to redefine language to suit their own purposes and the surveillance state nature of things. In this sense I'm not entirely sure if the comparison is a good thing given how there's an inevitable tendency to internally reference the other books as you read this one.

Henry isn't quite a 100% likeable character. It's not that he's somehow evil by nature, by more than he's passive to a fault. Despite being the poet who inspired the communist uprising in the country, he's didn't exactly intend to do this. And thus given his nature, he opted to just play along with the government out of a lack of something better to do. This in itself is a statement of sorts on his role in things, and it makes a bit more sense once you get to revelations much later in the book.

Tone and setting were a little tricky for me here. On the one hand, the time period isn't totally clear right off the bat, probably because I did not know that Henry Lawson was an actual Australian poet. It's the equivalent of not knowing who Abraham Lincoln is and deciding to read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The book somewhat assumes that you're familiar with the character, and thus the setting of the book can be automatically derived from his involvement. I was introduced to the book as a steampunk novel, but that was not quite immediately apparent except for the robot and the dirigibles as transport.

And there's the whole changing of spelling bit that is both interesting and annoying at the same time. I can understand the intellectual reason why this was done - it's an effort to control everyone's lives down to how they think about their daily life. Changing time and spelling is so fundamental to daily life thus it becomes all-pervasive that the changes have been made. But at the same time, the way words are now spelled are almost comical in their childish nature, thus giving the novel a somewhat comedic feel that does not fit with the rather serious plot as a whole. This leads to a little confusion for me as to what to expect from the book - is this meant to be tongue in cheek humor or do we have to embrace the serious tone despite the country now being Australya?

The book talks about Henry as being the hero of a robot revolution, but the robots don't quite play a major role until much later in the book and he seems to make little to no effort to help them for the most part. The title of the book thus sort of promises something that the book doesn't quite deliver - if only because it's clear that the robot revolution is something mapped out for a sequel title. As much as we don't need the full revolution in this first book, I think I would have liked more foreshadowing related to this coming event in terms of Henry's changing mindset or motivations.

Henry Lawson Hero of the Robot Revolution isn't quite an easy read, but it is an interesting one. I wish I knew more about Henry Lawson as an actual historical figure in order to like the book better, but the book on its own does decently enough. Thus it rates as 3 horribly mangled words (evil government!) out of a possible 5.

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