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April 10, 2014

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: No Intro Edition

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

This book is a weird beast. Set in Britain around the year 600AD, around the time that the island was converting to Christianity, it follows a woman who would eventually become St. Hilda of Whitby (no, I don't know who she is either). Hild is a seer from an early age, not really because she has any mystical powers but more because she's been raised by her mother to be a highly-trained political operator, surrounded by people who aren't looking much past their own self-interest. Caught between the Catholic church, Irish war parties, and her own hostile king, Hild spends much of the book trying to figure out how to keep herself and her family safe by predicting events before anyone else realizes what's going on.

The elevator pitch for this — Dune if Paul Atreides was a woman in the middle ages — is so good, it's all the more annoying that Hild herself comes across as one-dimensional and unrealistic. She's setting policy by the age of ten, and running large chunks of the country by 16. It's not really a Mary Sue — Hild has plenty of flaws, and regularly makes mistakes — so much as it's merely undramatic. The narration tends to tell, rather than show, with little in the way of suspense or surprise. Griffith's goal, at least in part, seems to be to use Hild as a critique of passive female characters in fantasy literature, which is a fine goal. It's frustrating that she seems to have forgotten to make her very interesting in the process.

Precision Journalism, by Philip Meyer

This book is often cited on the NICAR discussion list as the go-to textbook for data journalists, but I'd never read it. The Kindle version is the 2002 4th edition, which seems to be the newest copy. As a result, parts of it are dated or a little "quaint," but for the most part I think it actually holds up to its reputation. Meyer keeps a light touch throughout the book, walking reporters through standard statistical tests, surveys and polling, and databases without getting bogged down into too much operational detail. There's a lot of "here's the formula, and here's where to go to learn more," which seems reasonable.

Inadvertently, being a textbook for an undergraduate audience, Precision Journalism is revealing as much for what it thinks students won't know as it is for what it explicitly teaches. For example, there's an early chapter that covers probability, which makes sense: probability is confusing, and many people get it wrong even after a statistics class. I'm a little snobbier about the following chapter, in which Meyer details how to figure percentage change and change in percentage (subtly different concepts). Part of me wants is glad that it's being covered. Another part is annoyed that students don't know it already.

That said, Meyer's enthusiasm and practical outlook on what we now call "data journalism" really resonated with me. I'd like to have seen more emphasis on SQL instead of SAS, but that's nitpicking. For the most part, Precision Journalism does a great job of covering the strengths and weaknesses of computer-assisted reporting, with lots of examples and wry humor. I guess there's a reason it's a classic.

Debt, by David Graeber

Everything in Debt is kind of a letdown after its second chapter. That would be section where Graeber disembowels the common economic myth of a "barter economy" — the idea that in some mythical village, one person had chickens but wanted shoes, and the other person had shoes but didn't want chickens, and so to enable them both to trade despite their conflicting desires, we invented money. How convenient!

Turns out it's also a complete fabrication, despite the efforts of decades of anthropologists trying to find such a barter society. Instead, the historical record shows that people in non-money societies are linked by an interwoven network of casual debts and favors, not strict one-for-one exchanges. We invented money not to supplant barter, but when we needed a method of exchange that didn't involve trust — usually to give soldiers a way to pay for things when they camped somewhere, given that they were only temporary occupiers and not accountable for the same kind of debts as a neighbor.

This is not new research, apparently — Graeber complains that anthropologists have been trying to convince economists to find a new origin story for years — but it was new to me. The realization that the foundational mythology of economics is a fairy tale doesn't disprove its validity as a field, but it does raise a lot of really interesting questions. Graeber, a former leader within the Occupy movement, certainly pulls no punches in his criticisms.

The rest of the book is good and similarly thought-provoking, but it can't help but seem a bit underwhelming. Graeber works his way forward methodically through all the ways that we conceptualize obligations, then through the history of debt and payment up through the modern age. At times, this is fascinating, especially when he discusses "reversions" from a monetary economy to an informal debt economy. Ultimately, the book builds to a theory of international politics that ties debt to "tribute." Is it convincing? For my part, not entirely, no. But it's a fascinating and deeply-researched argument.

Halo: Kilo-Five trilogy, by Karen Traviss

Karen Traviss is one of those writers who makes me resent the licensed-property industry a little bit. A talented genre writer — her Wess'har books are a sharp and unsettling rumination on politics and veganism — Traviss gets tapped a lot to write tie-in novels for movies and games. She's good enough that the result sometimes transcends its origin, so every now and then I'll give one a shot. The Kilo-Five books are basically what you get if you cross Halo's backstory with a spy yarn.

Set between the third and fourth games, the Kilo Five books bear little resemblance to the action of the source material. There aren't a lot of firefights on offer: instead, the plot bears more resemblance to Operation Mincemeat, the WWII counterintelligence operation that disguised the fact that the Allies had broken Nazi codes. Having won a war against hostile aliens, the books' human protagonists are working covertly to keep them destabilized by creating civil unrest and sabotaging infrastructure. It's also a subversive take on the macho warrior spirit of the Halo franchise, which makes the Amazon reviews from wounded fans almost worth the price of admission. I'm still glad Traviss is getting back to original fiction, though.

Girl Sleuth, by Melanie Rehak

When I was a kid, my dad went to a second-hand bookstore and bought ten or fifteen of the Tom Swift Jr. pulp novels for me. Even though at that point they were probably thirty years old, dated with golly-gee-whiz references to the wonders of atomic power (oh, to have lived in the uncomplicated world before Three Mile Island), I read them cover to cover multiple times. Tom Swift, of course, was a product of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its potboiler formula — the same one that powered the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, neither of which I read but which I'm sure I would have found equally compelling.

Girl Sleuth is nominally a history of Nancy Drew, but it also serves as a look at the Stratemeyer dynasty: started by an enterprising writer named Edward Stratemeyer, then carried on by his daughter Harriet when he passed away. It's also the story of Mildred Wirt, the woman who wrote almost all the original Nancy Drew, but was for years hidden behind the syndicate's pen name, Carolyn Keene. Rehak traces the evolution of the character, as well as the parallel tension between the younger Stratemeyer, who wrote many of the series outlines, and Wirt, an adventurous newspaper journalist who churned out an unthinkable number of pages for the series. Both women believed, not without reason, that they were the real author of Nancy Drew.

As much as anything else, Rehak's re-telling is a fascinating look at the lifecycle of pop culture. Nancy Drew began as a semi-disreputable pulp sensation: hated by librarians, but a hot commodity among kids. For whatever reason, the series took off, and was beloved enough that (like my Tom Swifts) it was passed on to a new generation, who took the old stories and found new contemporary values in them. In a way, it could be argued that she was as much a creation of the readers as of either of her "authors." Transformed by the changing youth culture of the 20th century, Nancy Drew became a proto-feminist icon, then an American tradition, and is now an article of nostalgia. Rehak seems optimistic that she can adapt even further, but I wonder if that's not belaboring the point. Sometimes a good story should just end.

October 31, 2013

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Endgame

It is never a bad time to remember that Orson Scott Card is a terrible person. But this week, as millions of people will go to theaters to see a movie based on his most famed work (sorry, Lost Boys), it is good to also remind ourselves: Ender's Game is not a good book. It's barely even a bad one. Consider the following three essays, ranked in descending order of plausibility:

  • Creating the Innocent Killer, by John Kessel, is a comprehensive debunking of the book's "morality." Kessel details how Card stacks the deck, again and again, so that Ender can do the most incredibly awful things but still be a "good" person.
  • Kessel mentions Sympathy for the Superman, by Elaine Radford, which notes a wide range of similarities between Ender and Hitler, and theorizes that the original trilogy was meant to be a "gotcha" on his audience.
  • Finally, Roger Williams writes a conspiracy theory of his own: that Card didn't even write the original books.

Williams' story is unlikely, I think, but it's too much fun not to mention (and for a long time, his account was the only place you could read about the Nazi connection). Radford makes a stronger case, but chances are much of Ender's similarity to Hitler is just coincidence: Ender ends up on a planet of Brazilians because Card is a hack who went on Mormon mission to Brazil as a young adult, he's a misogynist because his author is one, and he justifies his genocide with a lot of blather about "intention" because Card chickened out on the clear implication of the first book: that his protagonist really was a psychopath that wiped out an entire civilization based on an elaborate self-deception.

It's Kessel's essay that's been the most quoted over the years, and for good reason. It's a brutal deconstruction of the tropes used to build Ender's Game, and ends in a deft examination of why the book remains so popular:

It offers revenge without guilt. If you ever as a child felt unloved, if you ever feared that at some level you might deserve any abuse you suffered, Ender’s story tells you that you do not. In your soul, you are good. You are specially gifted, and better than anyone else. Your mistreatment is the evidence of your gifts. You are morally superior. Your turn will come, and then you may severely punish others, yet remain blameless. You are the hero.

Ender never loses a single battle, even when every circumstance is stacked against him. And in the end, as he wanders the lonely universe dispensing compassion for the undeserving who think him evil, he can feel sorry for himself at the same time he knows he is twice over a savior of the entire human race.

God, how I would have loved this book in seventh grade! It’s almost as good as having a nuclear device.

Like a lot of people, I did have this book in seventh grade (or earlier — I'm pretty sure I read it while attending junior high in Indiana). And I did love it as a kid, for most of the reasons that Kessel states: I was a bright kid who didn't have a lot of friends, felt persecuted and misunderstood, and struggled to find a way to express those feelings. Eventually, I grew up. Looking back on it, Ender's Game didn't really do any harm — like a lot of kids, I wasn't actually reading that critically. It's just kind of embarrassing now, and I definitely don't want to go to a theater and relive it.

Feeling embarrassed by your childhood reading material is a common rite of passage for many people, and science fiction readers probably more than others. Jo Walton refers to this as the Suck Fairy. It's tempting, when this happens, to wish we could go back in time and take these books off the shelves — or stop readers now from encountering them in the first place — but it's probably a better idea to foster discussion (a happy side effect of an active adult readership for "young adult" titles) or have alternatives ready on hand.

Recently I re-read another beloved book from my childhood: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. If you haven't taken a look at it lately, you really should. Apart from the titles, the two books have aged in radically different ways — in fact, it's probably better now than it was then. I remember reading it mostly as a puzzle: first to solve it, and then again to appreciate the little clues that Raskin works in. But as for the warmth, the sympathetic characterization, and most of all the humor (seriously, it's an uproariously funny book): I missed out on all of these things when I was a precocious youngster identifying with Turtle and her shin-kicking ways, just like I missed Ender's fascist tendencies.

And so ultimately, I'm not worried about young people reading Ender's Game and being influenced for the worse, because I suspect that what they take from it is not what Card actually wants them. It's sometimes difficult — but also crucial — to remember that the reader creates the story while reading, almost as much as the author does. Should we speak out against hateful works, and try not to give money to hatemongers? Sure. Will I be going to see Ender's Game at the local cinema? Definitely not. But I'll always understand people who have a soft spot for it anyway. Despite my bravado, despite the fact that I dislike everything it has come to stand for, I'm one of them, and I'm not going to let Card make me feel bad about that.

April 8, 2013

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

An Iain Banks Primer

Last week, Iain Banks announced that he has terminal cancer, with probably a year remaining to live. He'll hopefully see the publication of one more book, Quarry, before he goes.

Banks has long been one of my favorite authors, to the point that our living room bookshelves have several units devoted entirely to his work. I even had Belle bring me back paperbacks of his literary fiction from a trip to England, since those are still hard to find on this side of the pond. I'm tremendously saddened that he's doing so poorly, and I hope his plans to enjoy his remaining time as much as possible are a success.

If you've never really read any of Banks' work, and you'd like to see what the fuss is about now, where should you start? The answer seems to be fairly personal--especially within the science fiction genre, opinions often differ wildly on which books are better. This is my take, sorted between the two genres (literary and SF) that Banks called home.

Literary

  • The Wasp Factory: His debut novel, this very much introduces two common elements of Banks' fiction: twist endings, and sympathy for characters who are very much unsympathetic. The Wasp Factory centers on a young sociopath living in a Scottish village, who ritually tortures insects as a method of self-therapy. It's better than it sounds, but don't start here.
  • The Business: This is a better place for first-time readers. Banks uses this book to gently satirize capitalism, with its main character being a senior manager for the shadow company that runs most of the world behind the scenes, and would now like to buy its own country for tax purposes. It's a little fluffy, but also tremendously fun.
  • Walking on Glass: Published soon after The Wasp Factory, many of the same tics are present, but this time the story is told from multiple perspectives--one of which is entirely fanciful. I think this is the first of Banks' novels that I read, and it blew me away, but didn't hold up nearly as well on a second reading.
  • The Bridge: Is this science fiction, or literary? The bridge sees Banks learning how to combine the techniques from his previous two books, but leave off the twist ending in favor of more character development and discovery. I also love the chapters written in full-Scottish brogue as a parody of Conan-esque barbarian tales. This'll always be one of my favorites, and is a great place to jump in.
  • Dead Air: Of the literary side, this is the only title I'd actively skip. Banks can be a bit of a polemicist, which doesn't normally bother me, but in this book about a shock jock he lets the character rail on a bit more than is really justified. If you want a book about character redemption, you're better off with Espedair Street or The Crow Road.

Science Fiction

  • Player of Games: Generally considered the best intro to the Culture books, which is probably about right. It has all the elements of a great Culture yarn: huge set pieces, likeable characters who are dissatisfied with their utopian society, and the manipulations of the Mind AIs that actually run the Culture as a whole. It also serves as a fun, slightly-stacked argument in favor of Banks' socialist, post-scarcity future, with the capitalist aliens serving as skeptical audience stand-ins.
  • Use of Weapons: If The Bridge was just on the literary side of things but had a number of science-fictional elements, Use of Weapons is its counterpart. This is definitely SF, but it has elements of cruelty and experimentation that could easily have come from Walking on Glass. It also has a fascinating structure, since the chapters alternate between two different parts of the main character's life as a Culture mercenary, each shedding light and leaving clues for the other, until they merge together for a devastating conclusion. It also begins Banks' habit of showing how the Culture's utopian surface actually hides a number of much less savory choices being made for the greater good.
  • Against a Dark Background: One of my favorites from outside the Culture books. AADB follows a former soldier named Sharrow who is hired to find one of the Lazy Guns--demented superweapons that destroy their targets with sudden, completely random flights of whimsy. Since there's no continuity to worry about, Banks has a great deal of fun with one-off jokes, like the gang of solipsists that wander in and out, each convinced that everyone else is just a hallucination. It's also a merciless book when it comes to its characters, but not without reason.

In addition to these older titles, you may be interested in my reviews of Banks' newer work, including The Hydrogen Sonata, Surface Detail, Matter, and Transition.

January 29, 2013

Filed under: fiction»reviews

Machine Vision

Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis is a writer of a particular style, which can be polarizing. When it's good--as in Transmetropolitan, his frighteningly amusing riff on Hunter-Thompson-meets-Futurama political journalism--it's very good, but there are other times when it comes across as bluster. His first novel, Crooked Little Vein, was a good example: over its 200-odd pages the schtick wore thin, and the catalog of American fetish weirdness that was left (while funny) wasn't enough to carry it.

His second book, Gun Machine surprises on two levels. The first is that it pulls back substantially from Ellis' usual over-the-top dialog style. It still surfaces for comedic effect (Ellis gets a lot of mileage out of two manic CSI technicians), but most of the prose is written more restrained, or in another, Ludlum-like style entirely. This gives the book something Crooked Little Vein never really had: dynamics. The characters have room to breathe, and become a lot more sympathetic, when they're not all shouting in the same voice.

The other surprise is that the book actually works as the mystery-thriller it appears to be, since I was expecting something less traditional. It follows John Tallow, a New York City cop who is coasting along on his partner's graces when said partner is shot, simultaneously revealing a room full of purloined firearms arranged in complicated patterns--the "gun machine" of the title. Alternating chapters follow the room's owner, a schizophrenic killer for hire who's been working for influential New Yorkers over several decades.

It's not like Ellis is a stranger to mystery stories, or to conspiracy theories, but his usual M.O. tends to be more scattershot in scope, sprinkled liberally with Internet-age trivia. Gun Machine eschews this in favor of a lot of Manhattan history, and its relatively subdued narrative voice gives Ellis a chance to explore Tallow's gradual re-engagement with the world as he becomes more caught up in the case. It's a more thoughtful, sympathetic approach than I expected, in the best possible way.

Gun Machine has a few sections where it bogs down, and where it stretches across the line of plausibility, although it tends to skip past these deftly enough that they don't stand out until you stop and think about them later. But overall, it's a crackling little piece of genre fiction, paired with just enough in the way of characterization and unexpected turns to keep you turning pages without actually feeling guilty about it.

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, by Anna Anthropy

Someone had to write this book. It was really just a question of who would get there first: someone from the maker/craft culture, or someone like Anthropy, a cranky member of the independent game design community. Zinesters is a book about democratizing gaming: the idea that anyone should be able to write a video game, the same way that anyone can paint a picture or write a story.

If video games can be art, what does "outsider art" in that medium look like? Where are the subversive messages? And how do we give a canvas to more people--people who aren't young, white men? As the creator of several adamantly non-mainstream works, like Dys4ia and Mighty Jill Off, these are not idle questions for Anthropy. So her goals are two-fold: to explain the ways that games can be more accessibly, and (more importantly) to convince readers that making them is something they should want to do.

I'm not sure it succeeds at the latter (to avoid tying her book too closely to any given tool, Anthropy basically lists a number of entry-level game engines and then gives readers a pep-talk), but the former is extremely well done. Starting from the definition of a game as "an experience created by rules," she uses that as a jumping off point to examine game design, its relationship to society, and "folk games."

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is a very, very short book, and it often reads as a collection of blog posts instead of a single work, but it's an impressive tour of gaming at the margins of culture. If her argument has a weakness, it's contained in the title: considering the fade of zines (eclipsed by Internet blogging, now also on its decline), are there other models for DIY game creation that might need to be examined? How do independent games compare with indie films, or hackerspaces, or crafting?

It's not that Anthropy is wrong to pick zines as a starting point--given her emphasis on LGBT culture and fast/cheap creation, it's appropriate--but there's a lot of other creative philosophies that would be interesting to consider, and might result in very different interactive experiences. It may not be Anthropy's responsibility (or interest--it's a very personal series of essays) to present those, but in a book this brief, it couldn't hurt. As it is, we catch only a glimpse in her impressive citations, from the open-ended (ZZT) to the surrealist (La La Land 2) to the meta (Execution). The introduction to this diversity of gaming is intriguing, and it's a little disappointing when the corresponding analysis is relatively thin.

October 24, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»banks_iain

The Hydrogen Sonata

I believe there are two kinds of Iain Banks readers: those who are in it for the plot, and those who are looking for spectacle. Banks does both tremendously well, but hardly ever in the same book, which means that invariably reviews are split between people who thought his most recent novel was amazing, or merely very good.

I tend towards plot, myself. I think Banks is at his best when he keeps the scale small, and finds ways to twist and undermine his setting of high-tech, post-scarcity, socialist space dwellers, the Culture. Nobody does huge, mind-boggling scenes like him, but at those galaxy-spanning scales (and when starring the near-omniscient AIs that run the Culture) it's hard to feel like there's much at stake. My favorites, like Matter or Player of Games, combine the large and the small convincingly, hanging the outcome of huge events on the shoulders of fallible, comprehensible characters.

But for his last two books, Banks has tended more towards the huge-explosions-in-strange-places side of things. 2010's Surface Detail spun up a war in virtual Hells that spilled into reality, and now (with The Hydrogen Sonata), he's taken a look at a civilization trying to reach closure, even while long-kept secrets keep pushing up into the light.

I re-read Surface Detail this week, and I like it a bit more than I did the first time around. I still think it suffers from a lack of agency surrounding too many of its characters, who end up simply as pawns being ferried around to each major plot point, but I'll admit that those characters are charming, and the idea of the Hells--virtual worlds set up to punish people even after religion is technically obsolete--is thornier than it first appears.

The Hydrogen Sonata has a lot of the same issues: the events of its plot, while fascinating, are ultimately of dubious importance, and it's not entirely clear if any of the characters actually have real influence on anything that happens. But to its credit, the events of THS are so diverting, you almost don't care. This is Iain Banks doing spectacle at a level he hasn't really tried since Excession, and to a surpising degree it works. It's widescreen science fiction, and he's clearly having fun writing it.

The book opens as the Gzilt, one of the original co-founders (but not members) of the Culture, have decided to leave the material plane and "sublime" to a higher order of existence. Just as they're counting down, however, representatives of another sublimed civilization contact a Gzilt ship, hinting that they may have planted the seeds of Gzilt religion eons ago (and thus prevented them from joining the Culture when they had the chance). This sets off turmoil in the local government, and a gang of Culture ships recruits one former Gzilt military officer, named Vyr Cossont, to hunt down the oldest living survivor of the civilization's founding for a first-hand account of events.

There's not much actual mystery to be had here--Banks telegraphs how things are going to end up pretty quickly. But the fun is in the oversized set pieces being tossed around one after another, from the "Girdlecity" (a giant, elevated metropolis wrapped all the way around a planet's equator) to the hapless group of insects who conduct bee-like dances with their spacecraft while waiting to scavenge on the remains of the sublimed worlds. There's a Last Party being thrown by one rich Gzilt before the subliming that continually tops itself in extravagance. I was also tickled by Cossont's quest to play the titular composition on an instrument called the "Antagonistic Undecagonstring," which means she ends up lugging a bulky and inconvenient music case around the galaxy despite herself (as a bassist, I sympathize).

But while it's enjoyable enough, playing with these toys that Banks assembles, it's hard to shake the feeling that it's all a bit lightweight. The Culture has been set up in these books as tremendously powerful, almost omnipotent--it's run, if that could be said of decentralized anarchosocialists, by AI Minds at the helm of massive, powerful starships, far outclassing any of the other civilizations in the book. When there's a question of how events will turn out, it often reduces to "can ship X reach destination Y in an amount of time defined by the author?" which is not very dramatically satisfying. Like Excession, my least favorite Culture book, much of The Hydrogen Sonata takes place in catty infodumps between the Minds--these can be funny, but they can also read like you've wandered into someone else's e-mail thread by mistake.

Still, for people who are die-hard Culture fans like me, we'll take what we can get--even if I'd rather see more plot and less spectacle. Books like The Hydrogen Sonata flesh out a rich, funny, dark universe that Banks has been building for 25 (!) years now. It's good to visit, if only to point and enjoy the sights.

August 23, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Seattle Sunburn Edition

This summer I've started abusing the e-book lending program from the Seattle Public Library. The process itself is kind of stupid (why do I need to be on a waiting list for a digital file? Why can't I download it over the cell network?) but it's cheap and the selection's not bad. Unfortunately, the library doesn't keep a separate list of what you've borrowed, and I went and cleaned up my Amazon list, so I'm having to write part of this from memory. Truly, these are awful times.

For a long time, I didn't particularly have any feelings one way or the other about Connie Willis. She wrote that one depressing book about the black plague, is about all I could tell you. Then I read To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is probably the funniest time-travel book I've found (granted, not a terribly hilarious genre), and figured I'd give her another chance (the library has a ton of Willis available). Passage was probably the first title I picked up. A book about the science (and pseudo-science) of near-death experiences, it has all of the hallmarks of her work: sympathetic characters trapped in quagmire of bureaucracy, chaos, and cheerful incompetence--in this case, a hospital filled with quirky patients and ever-shifting construction. I don't think I reacted quite as strongly as Jo Walton to the twist ending, but I sympathize. It's a funny book, but (as is also often the case with Willis) maddeningly-paced. I would probably recommend it anyway.

Bellwether is also oddly-paced, but probably funnier and without the existential angst. It's about a scientist working for the HyTech corporation, trying to find out what causes fads, while fending off waves of trendy management policies and a disastrously bad office assistant. In a last-ditch effort to keep funding, she pairs up with a chaos theory mathematician using sheep for experimental subjects, even though neither of them knows the first thing about sheep. Willis has a gift for running jokes in dialog that she uses here, as every character has their own competing obsessions running roughshod over everyone else's. It's not an unpredictable book, which is funny for a story about chaos theory, but the enjoyment is in the journey.

Baratunde Thurston's How to be Black is ostensibly a satirical how-to guide, but really it's a memoir. In between chapters like "How to Be The (Next) Black President" and "How to Speak for All Black People", Thurston (a former web editor for The Onion) writes about what it was like to grow up in DC as a black kid in a militant vegetarian, pro-black household, attend private school with the politically-connected, and finally head off to Harvard. Honestly, I could have done with more of these stories, which are funny and glib in a self-deprecating way, more than a lot of the guidebook chapters, which start to feel like filler. At 272 pages, the book was a perfect library read: short enough to get through without endangering late fees on anything else, funny enough I didn't mind the length, cheap enough I didn't feel cheated that it was 272 pages with filler.

In addition to the library, I've also spent the summer reading through books that were downloaded to my Kindle literally years ago, but that I'd never gotten around to reading--mostly from book giveaways, before the publishers decided the real path to e-book success was to charge way too much for them. This means a number of terrible mystery novels and some decidedly mediocre fantasy. But one book stands out for being more bizarre than anything else in my backlog.

Flash, by L.E. Modesitt, is the simple story of a man named Jonat who consults on product placement in a not-quite-dystopian future, where ad jingles often include subliminal harmonics to create brand identification. Except he's also an ex-Special Ops soldier with a bunch of cybernetic enhancements that somehow the government just forgot to turn off. Hired to do some political consulting that goes vaguely wrong, Jonat finds himself on the wrong end of an enormous corporate conspiracy. This is the point where most protagonists would find some way to expose the malfeasance and cleverly put their enemies into a position of harmlessness. Jonat, on the other hand, embarks on a bizarre rampage of assassination and murder when confronted. Despite all evidence, the book seems convinced that Jonat is a fine, upstanding person--after a couple of bombings, shootings, and fatal traffic accidents, there's a moderately happy ending, in which he starts dating the emancipated clone body of a police AI.

To call it strange is perhaps not even the right word. It's as though Heinlein decided to start writing knockoffs of The Bourne Identity. I almost think you should read it.

May 18, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»mieville

Railsea

The problem with writing a book about trains is that it hands your critics a healthy arsenal of cheap metaphors to use in reviews (see also: Atlas Shrugged). Do we say that Railsea goes off the tracks a bit? That it doesn't really make it into station? Or indeed, that it never really gets up a good head of steam? Screw the puns. Let's just say it's not really up to par. This isn't to say that Railsea is bad, but it has a lot to live up to. Mieville has already written a better book about trains (Iron Council), a superior story about oceanfaring (The Scar), and a much more inventive YA novel (Un Lun Dun). Where does that leave Railsea? It's readable, even captivating at times, but ultimately a bit of a trifle.

Other readers have called this "Moby Dick with moles," but that's not quite true. Set on a planet where hunters, pirates, and scavengers roam an "ocean" of train tracks while avoiding dangerously-outsized ferrets, earwigs, and burrowing owls, Mieville does invoke Melville: train captains in this society each grow obsessed with a particular animal, including one who hunts a great white mole named Mocker-Jack. But these are just spice, thrown in as mood-setters. The vast majority of the book is actually about a moletrain doctor's assistant named Sham, who finds a memory card that leads to the end of the titular railsea, and kicks off a chase for the rumored riches located there.

Railsea is filled with clever authorial touches, like the use of the ampersand instead of "and" (there is a in-text reason) or an extended meditation on the ways that stories are themselves on rails, particularly in science fiction. Always respectful of genre, Mieville throws in passing references to Aubrey and Maturin, Robinson Crusoe, and Roadside Picnic (watch for the mention of a "Strugatski triskele"). These touches add interest to what is otherwise a pretty limp narrative: Sham spends most of his trip passively wandering up to more interesting stories, until the inevitable character growth moment. This is a book that's better as a critic than as a reader, but even there, it's not subtle: the layered, rich symbolism of Weavers and golems is missing, although I'll admit to enjoying the authorial asides that draw attention to the text's own lumpy pace.

Where Railsea redeems itself is in Mieville's writing, which is still (love it or hate it) an incredibly distinctive prose style, and its straight-faced embrace of the ridiculous. He gives only the slightest indication that his setting--with its savage naked mole rats, rail captains with mandatory artificial limbs, and carriages pulled by rhinocerii--is completely preposterous. Mieville has always written worlds that piled unlikelihood on improbability atop impossibility, but here he occassionally winks to us, such as this section on the theology of trees and railway ties:

Of all the philosophers' answers, three stand out as least unlikely.

— Wood & wood are, in fact, appearances notwithstanding, different things.

— Trees are creations of a devil that delights in confusing us.

— Trees are the ghosts of ties, their gnarled & twisted & dreamlike echoes born when parts of the railsea are damaged & destroyed. Transubstantiated matter.

All other suggestions are deeply eccentric. One of these three is most likely true. Which you believe is up to you.

All gripes about the book aside, I find that completely charming. This mischievious voice makes Railsea the kind of book that's almost begging to be read aloud. And if, in the end, the twists in this tall tale are a bit straighter than you might expect, I suspect it's still worth the price of the ticket.

April 19, 2012

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Antitrust

Before anyone gets too excited about the DOJ antitrust suit against "agency-model" book publishers, it's important to reiterate the following important facts:

  • Amazon is not on your side.
  • Apple is not on your side.
  • The publishers are definitely not on your side.

Who is on your side? We will assume, for the purposes of discussion, that you are, but I retain the right to be skeptical.

I'm trying not to have an emotional investment in this case (see opening list). Belle and I use a lot of Amazon services (did you know in Seattle you can buy your groceries from them? We do), but I'm fully aware that when it comes to both strong-arming suppliers and providing unfettered access to content (read: AmazonFail a few years back) they've got more issues than New Yorker archives. I'm just having a hard time, ultimately, seeing how the publisher's problems dealing with Amazon should be my problem (or any other customer's problem), or why they should be allowed to fix prices just because they feel threatened.

There has been a lot of good commentary written about this. Charlie Stross uses the suit as an opportunity to propose that DRM is dead, since it's the primary weapon that publishers have against Amazon. This is an interesting pitch, although I'm not sure it actually makes sense: Amazon has been selling other media, such as MP3s, unencumbered by DRM for some time and it doesn't seem to have done much for them either way. Moreover, I don't buy Kindle books because they're locked to the platform--I do it because the process is practically frictionless, as opposed to requiring a connection to a PC every time I want to buy a book. But then, I find Stross informative but not always particularly prescient, such as this disastrously wrong post from 2007 (shorter version: there will never be a cheap e-book reader. Five years later, you can get a Kindle for less than $80, and dropping).

As far as the antitrust case goes, the government's case seems pretty straightforward: yes, the publishers colluded to fix prices, using Apple as a middleman but also trading e-mails (with notes attached reminding each other to delete said e-mails at a future time) and having private meetings at fancy restaurants. From this we can conclude that these are people who have not watched either The Sopranos or any other mafia movie made in the last thirty years.

In fact, it's kind of amazing how much this case lets us learn about the book publishing industry--stuff that, frankly, seems entirely insane. This is an industry that, as Obsidian Wings notes:

  • does little or no marketing for its actual product,
  • barely edits its product,
  • buys books that it will not print, and
  • buys back and destroys stock that didn't sell from the store.

Ignore the questions of price-fixing. Set aside the (debatable) arguments that publishers provide valuable editing and marketing services that full-time authors cannot handle for themselves. Forget about the fact that, under their preferred agency model, they are happy to sell you fewer books at a higher price, or that this all seems weirdly similar to the way the music industry campaigned for self-immolation post-Napster. Just look at that last item: this is a business model that pays retailers to destroy stock solely to keep distribution channels stuffed.

Even people in the publishing industry tend to agree that this is basically insane. Call me an anarchist, but you'll have to forgive me for being incredulous when they propose we let them do whatever they want to keep their institutions intact. Anti-trust? Yeah, that seems about right.

March 1, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Rainy Season Edition

Winter in Seattle seems to be a pretty good time to get some reading done. On the other hand, although I'm riding the bus a lot, my individual commutes are much shorter. I no longer find myself with three hours a day that I can devote to that week's book. As blessings go, that's definitely mixed, but on balance I'll take it.

Grant Morrison's Supergods is, like its author, a weird and rambling mess. Part autobiography, part examination of the cultural impact of superheroes, and part discourse on cyclical history, it ranges from brilliant to tedious (sometimes within a few pages). I bought this mainly on the strength of Morrison's reputation, having never really read his work. People who are actual fans may find it less uneven than I did.

The Cold Commands, by Richard K. Morgan, is a disappointing follow-up. Morgan is one of my favorite science fiction authors--he often writes a kind of hard-boiled, transhuman noir that's like putting The Maltese Falcon through Marvin Minsky's upload process--so I was a little nervous when he wrote The Steel Remains, but it turned out to be a dark, subversive take on the genre: a gay war hero in a homophobic society, a Lovecraftian view of the supernatural, and no small amount of contempt for the tropes of genre. The Cold Commands continues the setting and characters, which is fine, but then it squanders its entire plot on nothing much in particular. Too long and too little, it makes me hope that the buildup is worth whatever Morgan has planned.

Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice reads like a clear case of fitting a hook to a topic rather than letting it flow naturally. Author Paul Butler, a former prosecutor, has good points to make about how the American justice system is broken in ways that unduly punish black men, and his comments on how jail culture has spread out into hip-hop are thoughtful and interesting. But his answer is less a "hip-hop" theory of justice than a "common sense" or "progressive" theory. I guess that's not quite as marketable. It's worth reading if you're interested in the subject for its own sake, and not if you're hoping for some kind of wild cultural blend. Maybe that's a problem of my own expectations.

If you're looking for good, old-fashioned science fiction, you could do worse than The Door into Elysium by Joan Slonczewski. It has aliens! Matriachy! Genetic engineering! Distant and oppressive empires! For all that, it is also partly a book about non-violent social protest, which puts it right up my alley. It reminded me in many ways of le Guin's work--a thoughtful, steadily-built character drama at a subversively large scale. It is also (vaguely) like Dune, at least plotwise: the plot pits one planet of near-feudal bureacrats against a group of environmentally-aware anarchists. Recommended if you like books about institutional politics (read: not more tedious court intrigues), or if you're a sucker for the book's ecological setting.

I didn't hate Jacqueline Cary's Santa Olivia--a goofy pulp title about genetically modified boxing-- but her follow-up, Saints Astray, is criminally bad. Somewhere between the two books, Carey appears to have forgotten to write dialog without relying on annoying verbal tics, and the book is virtually plotless. It reads like wish-fulfillment--not something genre fiction (and particularly science fiction) needs any more of. You cannot skip this book fast enough.

Having never played The Witcher, I didn't really know what to expect when I picked up The Last Wish and The Blood of Elves, which are two of the books by Andrzej Sapkowski on which the games are based. They turned out to be surprisingly good (particularly The Last Wish). Although they feature Sapkowski's mutated monster-hunter Geralt as a main character, half the stories seem to be parodic takes on various fairy tales, showing how they twist and turn when placed into more realistic circumstances. Although there are serious dramatic moments, there's also a thick slice of black humor running throughout, and Sapkowski has a gift for wry dialog that the excellent translation preserves. Blood of Elves is probably more skippable, since it's apparently an out-of-sequence middle book, but they're both easy to recommend.

Simon Morden's Equations of Life feels like a William Gibson novel that's trying too hard--and given Gibson's output lately, which has spiraled into a loop of tedious trendspotting, that's not a compliment. A noir-ish yarn about a Russian mathematician in post-disaster London tangling with Yakuza and killer nuns, it's too proud of its unoriginal ideas, and not willing to give its characters enough leash. For all that, Morden isn't a bad writer, so it's a quick read, but not a memorable one.

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is one of those post-human "big idea" books that, for me, crosses the line from science fiction into tall tale. Yes, yes, sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic and all that, but when it all comes down to it, once you get far enough from the pre-Singularity here-and-now, your uploaded-consciousness yarn runs the risk of becoming either A) Mary Sue (i.e., John C. Wright) or B) unbearably twee. Rajaniemi's book, with its characters who manage their memories like social networking profiles, ends up closer to the latter, and it's to the author's credit that the best ideas don't get swamped under either exposition or deus ex machina. It's probably worth reading once it's out in paperback.

Now here is one of those rare titles: historical fiction wrapped in sci-fi, and it's (intentionally) laugh-out-loud funny. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of a loosely-related series by Connie Willis, in which historians at Oxford travel back in time and meet with various mishaps. In this case, the main character is sent back to the Victorian era to repair the timeline (somehow--the instructions get lost along the way) while recovering from a serious case of time-sickness (and while knowing absolutely nothing about Victorians, except that he once read Three Men in a Boat, which he then inadvertently inspires). If the denouement can't quite live up to the hilarious first two-thirds of the book, that's little enough to complain about.

Finally, after reading 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth, which is a collection of Matthew Ingram's comics for The Oatmeal, I have an unfortunate confession: I don't think I actually like The Oatmeal very much. Ingram's comics are internet-famous, I just don't think they're actually that funny. Half of them are flat nerd humor straight out of Reddit, and of the rest, the charm wears thin across an entire book collection. Maybe they read better when they trickle out a little bit at a time. It's free from the Kindle Lending Library if you're an Amazon Prime member, but otherwise I wouldn't recommend it.

November 18, 2011

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Kindle Fire: Bullet Points

  • If you strictly want to read e-books, you're better off with an e-ink Kindle. Reading on an LCD is still annoying, and the Kindle application is choppy.
  • It's pretty great as a streaming media player, as long as you have a Netflix account or an Amazon Prime membership, or both. You can't cache either of those offline, though, which means it's not great away from wifi.
  • The music player is fine, but I'm completely spoiled by Zune Pass, and I don't really need yet another device that plays MP3s.
  • Belle doesn't like the speakers much. I think if we were meant to listen through speakers, God wouldn't have given us good noise-blocking headphones.
  • I don't have any experience with other tablets, nor do I particularly think there's anything earth-shattering about the idea of a tablet, so I'm the wrong person to ask whether it's a good fit within that niche.
  • That said, if you're looking for a cheap Android tablet, I'm not aware of anything better than the Fire for the price.
  • As soon as someone releases a decent launcher that doesn't crash instantly, you will want to replace (supplement?) Amazon's weird launcher. "Cover Flow" is not a useful browsing UI when, like me, you own a couple hundred e-books.
  • I'm enjoying the ability to sideload applications on the Fire a bit too much. It's like a flashback to the days when people used to install software from websites (or, heaven forbid, a disc from an actual store) instead of a centralized, curated, for-profit repository. "Oh, Amazon doesn't let other e-book readers or browsers in their store? Who cares?"
Overall: it's nice enough, but I'm not throwing my laptop or my Kindle 2 away any time soon.

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