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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Before anyone gets too excited about the DOJ antitrust suit against "agency-model" book publishers, it's important to reiterate the following important facts:
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:
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.
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.
Before I get to the mini-reviews of my (mostly) Kindle reading recently, I want to talk about something that's undoubtably very stupid: books based on video games.
Crysis: Legion caught my eye, not because I care (or even know very much about) the game it's based on, but because it's written by Peter Watts. Watts wrote Blindsight, one of the most unnerving books about first contact, and the Rifters trilogy, the world's best underwater contagion disaster novel. He writes cerebral, hard science fiction that draws heavily on his background as a marine biologist. Watts is not, in other words, the guy you immediately imagine as the best candidate to write a book based on a game about robot-suited marines repeatedly shooting aliens in the head.
And sure enough, he can't entirely rescue it. Watts tries his best--a running subplot cognitive prostheses manages to be both creepy and darkly funny--but in the end, it's tied to the plot of the game, and that plot just isn't very good.
At least, it's not very good for a book. For all I know it's fine for a game. But Legion really illustrates how storytelling shifts between these mediums, and not always for the better on the interactive side of things. A game plot is subject to game mechanics: the verbs available to the player are the actions available to the character, and a satisfying experience comes from giving the player new ways to apply those verbs in increasingly complicated or involved circumstances.
So (I'm gathering from the book, granted) in Crysis 2, players can shoot things, they can flip switches, and they can assign energy to a set of suit abilities, such as defense or stealth. These actions are put to use in a series of firefights, directed by secondary characters who tell the player where to go, culminating in set-pieces where he or she has to fight through an alien mechanism to shut it down. For a game, that's plenty (as an FPS, in fact, it's already relying on a vast collection of behavior that players have learned). But it's a frustratingly passive, tedious experience for long-form print fiction, no matter how it's dressed up in an internal monologue and a series of interstitial reports from other points of view.
It doesn't have to be, of course. Just as a movie adaptation of a book has differences due to the change in medium, it's not unreasonable to expect that you could novelize a game. Nor is it intrinsically shameful: people draw their inspiration from all kinds of places (see also: Pirates of the Caribbean, Wicked, or the first Myst novel, none of which are "fine art" but still manage to be perfectly competent entertainment). But you can't do it by narrating the action. Pick a new character, expand the plot, do something unpredictable for heaven's sake.
With that out of the way, here are some of the other books I've read since my last set of reviews.
The Heroes is typical Joe Abercrombie: dark, slightly nihilistic fantasy tinged with gallows humor. It's the kind of thing that undercuts Sady Doyle's recent critique of George R. R. Martin--particularly the part where she describes fantasy literature as an "impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe." Abercrombie, even more than Martin, is not offering any pretense of airbrushing or of a desire to revisit anything. His generic fantasy setting is a miserable place, and his characters know it, which is part of what makes The Heroes so good--it's a careful deconstruction of the kinds of chivalry porn that has, admittedly, made up a respectable chunk of genre fiction. As such, it's probably best appreciated by people who know something about the context, and who don't mind an unhappy ending or three.
Richard Kadrey's Kill the Dead is a perfect example of how not to write a sequel. I read the previous book, Sandman Slim about a year ago, and thought it was a competent (if not exceptional) urban fantasy. That means I've had a year to forget almost everything about Kadrey's universe, and yet Kill the Dead does absolutely nothing to remind the reader about any of the characters, creations, or events of its preceding volume. I spent the entire first 100 pages asked "who? what, again?" and then looking for spoilers online. Combine that with a so-so zombie plot, and this is eminently skippable stuff.
Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their Fans is kind of interesting given that Milestone--the minority-owned studio launched in the 90's--was rolled into the larger DC universe as a part of their recent reboot. Jeffrey Brown's look at Milestone in the context of black comic book heroes and comic book fans ranges back to the blacksploitation era, and while it's probably not saying anything incredibly new, it is interesting to read a critical look on how the company was received, how it grew, and what that means for a more diverse media. Whether or not Milestone's values will be able to survive under DC's leadership, we'll have to wait and see.
Wait, did George R. R. Martin actually release A Dance with Dragons this year? Most of the reviews I've read were positive, but I think those were caused by relief that it was actually published, because I thought this was a noticeably mediocre installment into the series. Despite the high page count, almost nothing happens--most of it is taken up by travelling and below-average court intrigues. Maybe that's to be expected: it's a middle book, after all, and those are sometimes more about setup than resolution. But it's certainly made me a lot less interested in continuing when Martin finally finishes book #6.
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by David Aaronovitch, is another book that never quite achieves liftoff. Aaronovitch sets out to find a grand unified theory of why we create conspiracy theories, and the role they play in culture. But to do so, he drags the reader through a long series of conspiracies-as-case-studies. The result is big on history, not terribly strong on argument. Perhaps it's ironic, but I want a little bit more point-of-view and personality from my academic study of conspiracy myths.
In Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, Jane Margolis and Allen Fisher examine why, exactly, the gender imbalance in high-tech occupations emerged and persists. They trace it back along three lines: family treatment of technology, "imposter" syndrome, and a hostile male culture in computing. The last few chapters detail a program that the authors put together to try to address the problem. Since it was published in 2001, a lot of the information inside has seeped into more public awareness, but this is still a really good book on how women are turned away from tech trades, and what teachers and employers should do to reduce that effect. Speaking as someone working with a team of male and female data journalists, it's definitely a shame to lose 50% of our potential talent before the conversation even begins.
I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not really into Ian Macdonald, and The Dervish House is no exception. Macdonald's schtick is near-singularity cyberpunk set in developing countries, as if he's setting out to push Gibson's observation about the distribution of the future as far as he can. I'm glad someone's writing science fiction that's not set in the USA--this time it's Turkey--and I like the books well enough, but I don't love them. That said, Dervish House's combination of financial scams, mellified men, and virally-induced religion manages to be a fun read, jam-packed with ideas and intersecting plotlines. It's good stuff, it's just not my cup of tea.
I bought two books by South African writer Lauren Beukes recently. Zoo City is the better of the two: an urban fantasy in which criminals are inexplicably saddled with an animal familiar they have to care for. The main character, Zinzi, is a former journalist (with a sloth) who's hired for a missing persons case--a macguffin that doesn't last long. It's a noir-ish book, and an unromantic one, but I like how it edges up to Magical Realism without stepping into full-blown preciousness. Moxyland is more traditional dystopian science fiction, with the now-obligatory alternate reality game plot point. Although there are some clever touches in there--the strandbeest-like bio-art and the ebola variant used for crowd control--it's hard for me to get past the parts that borrow too heavily from contemporaneous fashions like gamification, without feeling like I'd rather just open up my RSS feeds.
Half-Made World? More like "half-written book," ba-dum-bum. Felix Gilman's bizarre pastiche reminds me a little bit of Mieville's Iron Council--it's a Western that's set... elsewhere, for lack of a better word--but in the end it just stops: either it's a setup for a sequel, or Gilman forgot how an ending is supposed to work. I like the idea of catching the ordinary people of his faux-Wild West between the Gun (representing the darkest parts of the gunslinger myth) and the Line (a malignant bureaucracy bent on manifest destiny via train), but the book is long on description and short on actual action, which I find incredible. It's like Gilman set out to write Weird Fiction in the least squeamish, visceral possible way, the point of which I can't possibly understand.
I don't know if Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology is the definitive account of L. Ron Hubbard's ponzi-scheme-turned-cult, but it's pretty good. Reitman briefly covers Hubbard's childhood, his biography (and his attempts at self-aggrandizement), and his role in the religion's founding and early growth. During the last half of the book, she turns to the modern Scientology organization, with special attention paid to Lisa McPherson, a member who died while under Scientology's care due to gross medical negligence and abuse. Reitman aims for plain-spoken objectivity throughout her telling of the organization's history, but even that is damning enough. She ends the book on an ambiguous note with a look at the next generation of Scientologists, which is something I found surprisingly refreshing. It provides a glimpse of the mundane humanity underneath one of the world's most bizarre dogmas.
In her review of Embassytown, Ursula Le Guin makes a lovely point about the genre and its critics:
Some authors fill a novel with futuristic scenery and jargon and then strenuously, even stertorously, deny that it's science fiction. No, no, they don't write that nasty stuff, never touch it. They write literature. Though curiously familiar with the tropes and conventions of the despised genre, they so blithely ignore the meaning of terms, they reinvent the wheel with such cries of self-admiration, that their endeavours seem a doomed effort to prove that one can write a novel without learning how. ... Only the trash forms of science fiction are undemanding and predictable; the good stuff, like all good fiction, is not for lazy minds. Where the complexity of realistic novels is moral and psychological, in science fiction it's moral and intellectual; individual character is seldom the key.To put it another way, good science fiction is often sociological literature, as opposed to psychological. It is, as the argument goes, more about the concerns of the present than about any predicted future. And as Mieville himself has written, it lends itself to radical political thinking precisely because it jettisons the most basic bounds of possibility. That's a powerful tool, as Sam Thompson's review in the London Review of Books explains.
Lately I've been wondering if, after the genre gets over its twin infatuation with steampunk and the undead, we're due for another round of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. There's certainly cause for it--global warming, outbreaks of E. coli and bird-flu, and of course, worries over peak oil. The last is something I find particularly intriguing. Could we call it "peak everything?"
Peak oil, of course, is the theory that A) there's a limited amount of petroleum that can be extracted from the earth within our current geological span of existence, and B) we will soon pass, or have already passed, the point where we have extracted all the easy-to-find oil. That means it'll be increasingly expensive to run a petroleum economy--possibly too expensive. We'll have to find alternatives, or suffer serious political and economic consequences.
Peak everything, by extension, would be based on the idea that oil isn't the only exhaustible resource on which our industrialized society is based. Modern electronics are manufactured using a variety of rare materials like coltan, and they aren't inexhaustible (not to mention that they're mined from conflict areas, making their supply prone to disruption). The plastics used in packaging and components are petroleum-based. And some things that are technically renewable, like oil, might turn out to be refreshed at a rate so slow as to be non-renewable. In response, we'd have to drastically change our manufacturing and consumption, which would ripple through unpredictable parts of society: our labor economies, our politics, our communications, and our urban planning, just for a start.
Whether or not this is scientifically feasible, I don't know. It's largely irrelevant anyway, given the genre's loose relationship to its namesake discipline. Charlie Stross, for example, has written regularly about the impossibility of certain genre tropes--this post on the impracticality of interplanetary travel is a great example. Let's not even get started on things like telepathy, artificial intelligence, or functional libertarian governments. Eco-fiction, like other genre settings, is a tool for exploring more than just scientific theory.
But even if we don't see "peak everything" as a subgenre on the rise, I've enjoyed thinking about it this week when reflecting on my own life. After all, how much of a typical American lifestyle could be maintained if we imposed a strict renewables-only requirement? Would we see more bespoke manufacturing, more user-serviceable parts encased in renewable materials like wood and bone? Would we learn to value beautiful patterns of wear over shiny newness?
Despite what seems like obvious potential, I've only read one novel recently that really played with the idea of rampant resource depletion: Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi sets the book in Thailand after the oceans rise and the oil economy runs down: coiled springs are revived as the main method of energy storage, and biotech is used as an imperfect replacement for now-defunct technology. I wouldn't say that The Windup Girl was one of my favorite books this year--it drags a bit, and some of its characterization is patchy--but I loved its willingness to interrogate contemporary economic breakdown without simply veering abruptly into Mad Max caricature. For a genre where "anything's possible," that kind of clarity is a bit too rare--and all too necessary.