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November 17, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Steam-Powered Edition

E-books are fantastic, but the ease of acquisition means that they can blur together a bit. Every few months, I try to take stock of what I've been reading via Kindle and share it here.

Tana French seems to have a talent for disturbing little detective books. Set in Ireland, In the Woods and The Likeness are both anxious, enjoyable potboilers willing to end badly. In the former, a murder cop investigates a crime that's weirdly similar to deaths from his own childhood. The latter sends a detective undercover into a tight-knit group of college students, impersonating one member of the household who was killed under suspicious circumstances (are there any other kind of circumstances?). Come for the crime, stay for French's gift with flawed, self-destructive characters.

Jamais Cascio's self-published Hacking the Earth is an attempt at advocating geo-engineering to fight climate change--but in a sane, manageable way. It's kind of an uphill battle, particularly since the Freakonomics crew seems to have come out for the most extreme, unusable forms of the practice, like creating giant hoses for pumping nitrogenous gases into the air (Elizabeth Kolbert neatly dissects these schemes in last week's New Yorker). But Cascio isn't claiming that we can fix the problem outright--just that we may need to buy time for sustainable policy changes to take effect. And he's upfront about the political, social, and technical problems that geoengineering faces. Even if you don't agree (and I'm skeptical), this is probably the most thoughtful pitch you're going to get.

In a similar note (recommendations from bloggers I read, in this case conflict mapping student Patrick Meier), I picked up WASP by Eric Frank Russell. Written in 1957, Russell's book is a futuristic take on non-violent system disruption and guerrilla tactics, sending a human "wasp" into an alien society to wreak havoc and prime the population for revolt. It's aged well, and I can see why Patrick was intrigued by its clever paper-war tactics. That said, there are elements to the story that begin to blur the lines between civil resistance and terrorism--or, perhaps, to show how permeable that line can be. A good thought-provoking read for activists.

At some point back in the past, I'd bought A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham, maybe as part of Tor's free offerings. Then I ignored it for a year and a half, probably because it starts very slowly. But once you get into it, this and its two sequels (A Betrayal in Winter and An Autumn War) are clever, character-driven epic fantasy. It's barely fantasy, in fact: the main supernatural elements are the andat, abstract concepts locked into genie-like human form by poets. The andat hate their captivity, scheme to escape it, and are increasingly difficult for the poets to capture--these are, in many ways, fantasy novels about the death of the fantastic, and the ways that concentrated power goes horribly wrong. Once the final book drops below that $10 mark, I'm looking forward to picking it up.

Tor ran a steampunk feature last month, which meant that I ended up buying much more of it than I normally would. Among the better titles were S.M. Peters' Ghost Ocean and Whitechapel Gods--neither being great literature, but both are certainly vivid pulp stories. Gods is the more steampunk of the two, set in a nightmarish town run by a giant clock and where a disease replaces your body parts with machinery. Ghost Ocean is more of an American Gods-lite, playing with old folktales and monsters, and was a bit more of a slog.

Another decent--if overstuffed--story is Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Set in San Francisco fifteen years after a mad scientist destroys most of the town with a mining machine (releasing a zombifying gas from underground, to add insult to injury), his wife has to travel back into the walled-off disaster zone in search of her son. Priest's a good writer who deftly avoids most pulp plot cliches (there's no forced romance plotline to be found, thankfully), and she's clearly enjoying herself with the whole airship/zombie/wild west mashup, but I found myself preferring the sharp observation of her Southern ghost stories to Boneshaker's sometimes-frantic action.

On the other hand, it could have been worse, like George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, an entirely predictable, by-the-numbers steampunk yarn. Mann's prose rubs me the wrong way, preferring as it does to both show and tell, and there's not a single plot point that wasn't completely predictable. Save your cash.

Over to non-fiction again: Searching for Whitopia by Rich Benjamin takes a look at the increasing number of American "exurb" communities populated almost exclusively by white people, and speculates a bit on the reason for their growth. Benjamin, who is black, also lives in each location for several months, ranging from a planned community in Utah to an Idaho town that's home to a healthy white-power movement. He also spends some time in the wealthy, primarily white neighborhoods of New York City, partly to deflect the criticism that he's picking on the rubes, but also out of genuine curiosity. Ultimately, however, when I look back on it, I remember a few funny moments told by a pleasant writer (losing his keys at the white-power barbecue being one example, as everyone pitches in to find them, or when he and an African-American realtor surprise each other after meeting in person for the first time), but not a lot of great insights or productive suggestions. I kind of wish it had been written by someone who's a little more militant, a little less accepting. But perhaps Benjamin's goal was to write something less polemical and more a spur for conversation--as such, it may be more successful.

I don't actually enjoy programming for a living, but I will admit that I enjoy reading about it, and Peter Seibel's Coders at Work provides plenty of great interviews to pick over, including Brendan "I invented JavaScript" Eich, Ken "I invented Unix" Thompson, Jamie "I wrote Netscape and got into fights with Richard Stallman" Zawinski, and Douglas "I figured out how to write better JavaScript" Crockford. Taken all at once, the book is a bit of a brick, but as something to dip into it offers a lot of wisdom from a number of very smart, very experienced programmers.

In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent has a lot of ground to cover--all the way from the earliest attempts at "philosophical" languages to Klingon. Part of what makes the book fun to read, whether or not you're a conlang nerd, is her attempt to actually use each language she finds. The result is to undercut the more fanciful, high-minded creations (trying to find the word "shit" in the heirarchy-mad Victorian languages) and portray the geekier tongues (Loglan and, of course, Klingon) in a more sympathetic light via their linguistic communities (such as they are). So while Okrent is ostensibly giving a tour of invented languages, she's also painting a portrait of the people who are drawn to both create and then attempt to speak these stilted vocabularies.

Finally, as part of my suburban b-boy experience, I picked up Joseph Schloss's Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, which is a very cool book. Schloss is an academic who's studied hip-hop and talks extensively about the way its practitioners perpetuate their values (as opposed to having academic frameworks imposed on them), but he's also assembled a wide collection of folklore and perspective from interviews with influential b-boys like Alien Ness and Ken Swift, as well as dancers from styles that developed into breaking as we know it. At parts, despite his aim to keep it grounded in the voices of the dancers themselves, Foundation may become a little jargonistic, but for the most part it's a fascinating read documenting the oral history of urban dance.

November 10, 2009

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

I, Robot. You, Jane.

It's been probably ten or fifteen years since I last read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. That's often a recipe for disaster: the book that you enjoy as a kid may be filled with all kinds of glaring faults and dated prejudices when viewed through adult eyes. Asimov's stories hold up better than I expected, although according to his timeline we're a few years overdue for household robots, and I for one feel cheated.

The reason I went back to the book in the first place was Susan Calvin, Robot Psychologist. The movie adaptation was on TV one night, and although it's not an unwatchable film, it does turn Calvin into a typical plot device: mobile-exposition-slash-love-interest. In doing so, and in the deployment of a bog-standard action-movie story, it loses a great deal of what made the stories interesting in the first place.

At heart, Asimov's Robot stories fit into a particular niche of sci-fi: the high-tech detective yarn. There's not a lot of work in this space, because it's a very difficult thing to do. In his Flatlander collection of "Gil the Arm" stories, Larry Niven explains:

A detective story is a puzzle. In principle, the reader can known what crime was committed, by whom, and how and where and why, before the story hits him in the face with it. He must have enough data to make this obviously true, and there must be only one answer possible.

Science fiction is an exercise in imagination. The more interesting an idea, the less justification it needs. A science-fiction story will be judged on its internal consistency and the reach of the author's imagination. Strange backgrounds, odd societies following odd laws, and unfamiliar values and ways of thinking are the rule. Alfred Bester overdid it, but see his classic The Demolished Man.

Now, how can the reader anticipate the detective if all the rules are strange? ... More to the point, how can I give you a fair puzzle?

With great difficulty, that's how. There's nothing impossible about it. You can trust John Dickson Carr, and me, not to bring a secret passageway into a locked-room mystery. If there's an X-ray laser involved, I'll show it to you. If I haven't shown you an invisible man, there isn't one.

The basic idea, then, is to make sure that the rules and the scenarios are clearly laid out for the reader, so that it's a fair challenge with no deus ex machina. Niven is better at this than Asimov is, but the latter has the advantage of what would become one of science fiction's most well-loved tropes: The Three Laws of Robotics. Having introduced the laws, Asimov then uses his short stories to play with them--what happens if they're modified? What if the robot has additional capabilities, like mind-reading? How could these laws go wrong?

Which brings us back to Susan Calvin, the troubleshooter for U.S. Robotics. In about half of the stories collected in I, Robot, Calvin's the protagonist tasked with sorting out her charges' aberrant behavior. She's a cold, impassive woman, described as "plain" but brilliant. Calvin likes robots more than people: in response to a question about the difference between people and robots, she snaps that "robots are essentially decent." I think it's odd that you don't hear much about Susan Calvin when lists of great sci-fi characters--and particularly, great female sci-fi characters--get made. She's acerbic, opinionated, smart, and misanthropic. Compared to Asimov's usual "boy scouts in space," she's a breath of fresh air.

The lone exception, and the one that took me by surprise, is the short story "Liar!" In this case, the malfunctioning robot (Herbie) turns out to be telepathic. Calvin and two other (male) U.S. Robotics scientists are sent to figure out how such a thing could have happened. For each of the three, Herbie presents a different aspect: for one mathematician, he's a brilliant calculator, while for the other (much more insecure) scientist, he professes no great skill with equations.

For Calvin, he claims to be mainly interested in human emotions, and to that end she supplies him with "slushy romance novels." It gets worse: Herbie begins supplying the scientists with "secret" information garnered through mind-reading. To the career-minded Bogert, it's news about an upcoming promotion. But in Calvin's case, it's an unrequited love--and when it turns out to have been a lie designed to satisfy the humans (in accordance with the First Law), she shrilly confronts Herbie with the contradiction of "causing no harm" and sends him into an unrepairable catatonic state. Apparently, no matter how smart or capable a woman is, at heart she's just another over-romantic shrew.

This portrayal of Calvin bears no small resemblance to the treatment of Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester on the TV show Glee, and it introduces a degree of uncomfortable uncertainty to Asimov's intent. Is Calvin really a smart, cynical woman? Or is she merely an androgynous stand-in, whose rare moments of femininity are exploited for humor? I'm still not entirely sure. I suspect Asimov hoped it would be the former, and he just wasn't quite capable of escaping the latter. It's too bad: as puzzles go, the other stories are often quite good. Asimov's vision of robots as something other than terrifying Frankenstein monsters is still refreshing (the final entry, "The Evitable Conflict," sets the foundation for Iain Banks' Culture society, among other things). And I think it's no coincidence that Susan Calvin's the subject of the Robot Universe prequel novels authorized by the Asimov estate, and the first Asimov property to be written by a woman. There's a really interesting character there for revival, if it's done right.

October 6, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»banks_iain

Matter in Transition

In an interview I read a while back, Iain Banks said he'd be releasing his literary fiction under "Iain M. Banks" in the US, because the middle initialed-name (which he normally uses for his science fiction) sells better here. The first book published this way is Transition. What he doesn't add is that it's been a long time since Banks's work has been sold here at all, regardless of genre. That fact only really started to change with the publication of his previous book, Matter, and Orbit's subsequent reissues of his older titles.

I don't remember ever discussing Matter at length here, but it serves as a useful contrast with Transition, and not just because they're ostensibly different genres (Transition has a lot of sci-fi elements, but uses them very lightly). They're also vastly different in scale and technique, representing the two poles of Banks's work.

The seventh Culture novel, Matter's primary theme is interference and intervention by outside powers. It concerns members of the royal family in a medieval society surrounded by far more intelligent aliens, including the Culture. When the kingdom is manipulated into civil war, the family's dim oldest prince has to go on the run, aided by his sister, who left the planet as a child to become a Culture agent. Along the way, Banks visits a typically-diverse cast of hyper-paranoid spies, eccentric drones, and nearly incomprehensible alien societies. The characterization is also superb--Prince Ferbin is either hilariously unaware or scornful of the opportunities that the galaxy has to offer, while his servant Choubris becomes increasingly independent as he sees a society beyond their feudalistic home, eventually inverting their relationship entirely.

A lot of people seem to have found Matter to be dense and a bit depressing, but it's actually one of my favorite books from the Culture set. Part of the joy of the series is the enthusiasm that Banks shows for huge ideas and massive pyrotechnics: there's no particular reason that the climax of the book has to take place in the den of the enormous alien creature living at the core of an artificial shellworld, but it's a lot of fun. That goes for the book's philosophy as well--the Culture is itself one of the those big, unrealistic ideas (it's a technocratic, post-scarcity socialist utopia run by AIs), as is Matter's flirtation with intergalactic interventionism. Banks delights in setting up his ideals, then finding ways to knock holes in them, as with the Culture's euphemistically-named spy division Special Circumstances, or Matter's ultimately ambivalent parallels to neo-conservative foreign policy.

Transition, on the other hand, is much lighter fare. It's told from multiple perspectives, some of which are not identified by name until late in the text. Most of the time is spent with four characters: a reluctant assassin, a torturer known as "The Philosopher," an ambitious young hedge fund manager, and a hospital patient recovering from amnesia. The story spans parallel universes, as several characters are members of a secret society able to hop between possible realities using a drug called "septus," which deposits them in the bodies of people at their destination.

The "transition" of the title thus refers partly to the process of moving from world to world. But it's also a reference to the primary theme of the book, which is the struggle between progress and stasis, as The Concern (the secret society controlling access to septus) teeters between one faction that would preserve the status quo (including giving immortality to members of its ruling council) and another in favor of actively encouraging diversity of thought and outcome across worlds.

Where Matter spent a lot of time in the grey areas of its theme, Transition is far more straightforward. The challenge in reading it comes more from deciphering how the various perspectives fit together, particularly the hospital patient, who may or may not be the same as one of the other characters. It reminded me strongly of The Bridge, one of Banks's earliest books, which also experimented with mixing different voices, perspectives, and shifts in genre. This is skillful and playful writing, but it doesn't stick with me the way that Matter does.

But this is all nitpicking: they're both great books, and I'm thrilled that they're being sold here, middle initial or no. They're not the titles I'd pick as an intro to Banks (that'd be Player of Games on the Culture side, and either Whit or The Bridge from the literary fiction), but they're solid works from a mature and interesting writer. Both come highly recommended.

August 17, 2009

Filed under: fiction»writing»quote

The Lazy Guns

There had been eight Lazy Guns. A Lazy Gun was a little over half a meter in length, about thirty centimeters in width and twenty centimeters in height. Its front was made up of two stubby cylinders which protruded from the smooth, matte-silver main body. The cylinders ended in slightly bulged black-glass lenses. A couple of hand controls sitting on stalks, an eyesight curving up on an other extension, and a broad, adjustable metal strap all indicated that the weapons had been designed to be fired from the waist.

There were two controls, one on each hand grip; a zoom wheel and a trigger.

You looked through the sight, zoomed in until the target you had selected just filled your vision, then you pressed the trigger. The Lazy Gun did the rest instantaneously.

But you had no idea whatsoever exactly what was going to happen next.

If you had aimed at a person, a spear might suddenly materialize and pierce them through the chest, or some snake's spit fang might graze their neck, or a ship's anchor might appear falling above them, crushing them, or two enormous switch-electrodes would leap briefly into being on either side of the hapless target and vaporize him or her.

If you had aimed the gun at something larger, like a tank or a house, then it might implode, explode, collapse in a pile of dust, be struck by a section of a tidal wave or a lava flow, be turned inside out or just disappear entirely, with or without a bang.

Increasing scale seemed to rob a Lazy Gun of its eccentric poesy; turn it on a city or a mountain and it tended simply to drop an appropriately sized nuclear or thermonuclear fireball onto it. The only known exception had been when what was believed to have been a comet nucleus had destroyed a city-sized berg-barge on the water world of Trontsephori.

Rumor had it that some of the earlier Lazy Guns, at least, had shown what looked suspiciously like humor when they had been used; criminals saved from firing squads so that they could be the subjects of experiments had died under a hail of bullets, all hitting their hearts at the same time; an obsolete submarine had been straddled by depth charges; a mad king obsessed with metals had been smothered under a deluge of mercury.

The braver physicists--those who didn't try to deny the existence of Lazy Guns altogether--ventured that the weapons somehow accessed different dimensions; they monitored other continua and dipped into one to pluck out their chosen method of destruction and transfer it to this universe, where it carried out its destructive task then promptly disappeared, only its effects remaining. Or they created whatever they desired to create from the ground-state of quantum fluctuation that invested the fabric of space. Or they were time machines.

Any one of these possibilities was so mind-boggling in its implications and ramifications--provided that one could understand or ever harness the technology involved--that the fact a Lazy Gun was light but massy, and weighed exactly three times as much turned upside down as it did the right way up, was almost trivial by comparison.

Against A Dark Background, Iain M. Banks, pages 135 and 136.

June 29, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: No Hero Edition

I'm not sure what the cause has been--lower margins on hardware, higher-than-expected bandwidth costs, simple greed--but Amazon has stealthily raised the prices at which they introduce books to the Kindle store. A lot of the new releases that I'd like to be reading (The Bloggers on the Bus, for example, or In the Land of Invented Languages) are priced at around $14. This still puts them at roughly $3 cheaper than Amazon's price for the printed version (plus shipping or Prime membership), but it's a $4 increase over the bestseller pricing at the device's introduction.

Although I should probably get over it--I didn't buy the Kindle for the discounts, after all--I have trouble bringing myself to pay the new, higher prices. As a result, it can be difficult sometimes to find new books to read. For all that Amazon's done, including the essential sample functionality, the Kindle store is still not always a great way to browse for new books--the recommendations are often titles that I've already read, or that I would never read (Laurell K. Hamilton, for example, less for the romance and more because vampires give me the willies). What I often end up doing is going to a physical bookstore, wandering the shelves, and taking pictures of books I want to download later. This is not exactly efficient.

In any case, here are some quick takes on my reading for the last couple months:

Charlie Huston's The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death wins the prize for longest title in this batch, I think. It falls neatly into the modern detective caper genre, where the protagonist is less a highly-capable PI solving a case and more a sad-sack just trying to extricate him- or herself from a series of unfortunate coincidences. Huston's book centers on Webster Goodhue, an ex-teacher who self-destructs after a bus accident, and gradually hauls himself out of depression via work in the field of crime-scene cleanup. As pulp goes, Mystic Arts is pretty good: the dialog is snappy, the plot wanders unpredictably, and everything is wrapped up neatly at the end. If I had to criticize, I'd say that the romantic plot thread seems a bit strained, but that's picking nits, really.

While Huston's book is a good example of modern pulp/noir, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a throwback to more classic thrillers. The last book written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson before his death, it follows a discredited journalist hired by a rich industry magnate to investigate the decades-old disappearance of his niece. The case unfolds with the help of a young, female computer hacker, who also serves as the hook for the novel's theme: a polemic against domestic violence in Sweden. As potboilers go, it's acceptable, and the Swedish setting makes a nice change of scenery for American readers, but ultimately it's a disposable piece of pop literature with slightly elevated aspirations.

Also planted firmly in its genre is Blood Engines by Tim Pratt. In this case, it's the new urban fantasy, in which various mythical figures are transplanted onto real-world locations. Pratt does a decent job with yet another Strong Female Wizard, but it's not going to knock anyone's socks off. For me, what was most distracting about it was the way it seemed like a book from the middle of a series while actually being the first, perhaps due to the way Pratt's clumsy expository style. I may pick up some of the other books if I'm bored, but I doubt I'll seek them out if I can find anything else. On the other hand, this one is free on Kindle as a promotional deal, so it wouldn't hurt other Kindle readers to check it out.

Here's an example of the poor recommendation system at work: I'd have never heard of Chris Braak's The Translated Man if John Rogers hadn't written it up, even though it fits neatly into my Weird Fiction niche. It's a murder mystery set in a kind of steampunk Victoriana mold, with forbidden math equations and Frankenstein wannabes--a little bit New Crobuzon, a little bit H.G. Wells. It's cheap, too.

Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple is a better book than it deserves to be. As an undergraduate, he spent a semester undercover at Liberty University, just to see what it was like. The results are predictable ("Fundamentalists are people too!"), but Roose has a deft, casual voice that's generally enjoyable to read. He also writes honestly about the changes in his own habits as the Liberty culture influences him, which readers may find disturbing or comforting, depending on their perspective. Toward the middle, the book drags as he spends a bit too much time introspecting on the dilemmas of undergraduate psychology, but it picks up again at the end when Jerry Falwell, Liberty's founder, dies, and Roose turns out to have done the last public interview with the man.

If nothing else, Drood is a fine argument for the phsyical advantages of the Kindle--the original is a lengthy 784 pages. Written by Dan Simmons (author of the historical Arctic thriller The Terror), it poses as a secret diary by Wilkie Collins, writer and friend of Charles Dickens who has been overshadowed by his contemporaries. Collins tells a story about Charles Dickens and a creepy, corpse-like figure named Drood, who recruits the famous author to write his autobiography through a combination of blackmail and hypnosis. Of course, Collins is himself a highly-unreliable narrator, being an opium addict and highly jealous of Dickens' gifts. Simmons can write, that's for sure, but his examination of jealous and ego is desparately in need of editing: Drood drags on and on, and when it finally ends the force of the big reveal has been blunted by the sheer length of it all.

Simmons, of course, has a history of strong beginnings and disappointing extensions, a trait shared by Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy: Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. The first book is a relatively fresh fantasy caper (with magic powered by ingested metals) that's fun as long as you don't think about it too closely. After that, Sanderson indulges in some serious world-building, none of which is nearly as interesting--or unexpected--as he thinks it is. I'm admittedly biased: Sanderson is yet another Mormon fantasy author, and as soon as I found that out, I found myself watching for telltale injections of doctrine. Worse, I found them. As with Simmons' Hyperion books, I'd recommend reading just the first title and then pretending that the rest don't exist.

At some point, post-Watchmen movie I'd guess, I downloaded Who Can Save Us Now?, an anthology of superhero short stories edited by Owen King. As with most short-story collections, it's pretty hit or miss. Part of the problem, honestly, is that I think superheroes are probably pretty much mined-out for subtext--indeed, part of the problem is that their subtext was shallow enough to be the text itself. As a result, there's a few "stupid superhero power" stories, a couple of "superpowers where you don't expect them" stories, and some straight superhero fiction, none of which is very compelling. The standout, in my opinion, is the opening piece by Stephanie Harrell titled "Girl Reporter." It's a compact meditation on public relations, power, and the unfortunate role of Lois Lane in the superhero fantasy.

I said, when doing a capsule review of Adam Troy-Castro's Emissaries from the Dead about a year back, that I'd happily pick up a sequel--and here it is. The Third Claw of God again centers on Andrea Cort, child war criminal and intersteller lawyer, for another murder mystery IN SPACE. What I find amusing about this book--indeed, about a lot of future noir, including Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books--is how conventional they are in many ways. By this I mean that if you got rid of the space-elevator setting, or the cybernetically-linked lovers, what you've got in The Third Claw is essentially an Agatha Christie one-room mystery. This book is strongest in the middle, when those elements are most present, and weakest at the beginning and end, when Troy-Castro lays the groundwork for the multi-book meta-plot. I wish he'd stick more with the one-shot storylines: the world doesn't particularly need another grand space opera, and I suspect it won't play to his strengths.

And finally, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation finally showed up on Kindle this year. I highly recommend it, even to those who are not hip-hop fans (I'm not, really). Chang's gone back to primary sources in order to draw a line from the historical roots of the movement, its four pillars (rap, DJing, b-boying, and graffiti), and its shift from social consciousness to big business. Probably about as good an overview as anyone could hope for, clearly written by someone who has deep affection for the art form.

May 29, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»mieville

The City and the City

"You think any of the foreigners don't breach?" Buidze said, and leaned in towards us, spreading his fingers. "All we can get from them's a bit of politeness, right? And when you get a bunch of young people together, they're going to push it. Maybe it's not just looks. Did you always do what you're told? But these are smart kids."

He sketched maps on the table with his fingertips. "Bol Ye'an crosshatches here, here, and in the park it's in here and here. And yeah, over at the edges in this direction, it even creeps into Beszel total. So when this lot get drunk or whatever, don't they egg each other on to go stand in a crosshatch bit of the park? And then, who knows if they don't, maybe standing still there, without a single world, without even moving, cross over into Beszel, then back again? You don't have to take a step to do that, not if you're in a crosshatch. All here." Tapped his forehead. "No one can prove shit. Then maybe next time when they're doing that they reach down, grab a souvenir, straighten back up into Ul Qoma with a rock from Beszel or something. If that's where they were when they picked it up, that's where it's from, right? Who knows? Who could prove it?"

China Mieville seems to have a soft spot for cities. He wrote three brilliant books about the bizarre city-state of New Crobuzon. Then he took a break to do a kid's book about a hidden version of London. He released a collection of short stories that included such topics as feral streets and monsters hidden in the noise of urban life. His new book, The City and the City, continues the pattern--but it does so in a way that Mieville fans probably won't expect.

The City and the City is set in Beszel and Ul Qoma, two Eastern European cities which are, in fact, one city. They're located physically in the same space, but separated by cultural and psychological adaptations that force citizens of one city to "unsee" the other. They are, as Mieville calls them, "topolgangers" of each other, cross-hatched and intermixed but never actually mixing. Contact between the cities is forbidden, except at specified borders, and anyone violating that rule is punished by a nebulous authority known only as Breach.

The story is told by Inspector Tyador Borlu, a policeman in Beszel. Unraveling the murder of an American archaeology student who had been living in Ul Qoma, Borlu follows leads to the other city and back when Breach refuses to get involved, eventually being pulled into an international conflict--as well as the struggle between his native "blind spots" and his investigative eye. As with all Mieville's work, this is Weird Fiction at its best: working both as an examination of urban consciousness and as an enjoyable mystery novel.

In tone, however, The City and the City is something unexpected. Unlike the richly-textured, gothic landscape of the Bas Lag books, Borlu's narration is spare and relatively chilly. If anything, it reads to me as greatly influenced by Peake's Gormenghast books, for which Mieville has great admiration. Like those stories, the setting is exotic without involving any actual supernatural or magical elements--not quite realism, but not quite fantasy, and nothing so fuzzy as "magical" realism. There are also elements of Calvino, particularly in the way Mieville playfully imagines the intersections of his grosstopically-merged cities, and the conspiracy theories that emerge from them.

Ultimately, I enjoyed The City and the City, but I didn't have the strong reaction to it that I've had to Mieville's other writing. I felt like Borlu came across as distant, and not particularly interesting, and the plot had a tendency to drift a bit. For the newcomer to Mieville, this is certainly one of his more accessible works: along with Un Lun Dun, it might be a good starting place for readers who are not quite prepared for the grotesqueries of his earlier books (those who were unprepared for the man-on-scarab sex that opens Perdido Street Station, for example). Myself, I enjoyed the more outlandish aspects of the Bas Lag trilogy, and as a reader I hope more is forthcoming. But I also respect the desire for a writer to strike out in new directions instead of retreading old ground. It's a fine line to walk, and I can't wait to see where Mieville will travel next.

May 8, 2009

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Walk Without Rhythm

Every few years I re-read Frank Herbert's Dune. This month I started thinking about futurism and novels--how we frame events using fiction, like the crazy people "going Galt" based on Atlas Shrugged--and that reminded me that it had been a few years since I'd picked up Herbert's masterpiece. So I grabbed an old digital copy and burned through it once again.

It's hard to believe that Dune is more than forty years old. It won the Hugo in 1966, but it could have been written yesterday. Much of this is just luck: the setting manages to skirt the kinds of details that date sci-fi (computers with a massive 4K of memory, food pills, landline telephones). But mostly it's just that Dune is really weird--in fact, I always forget how strange it really is between readings. And for all its reputed influence, it still stands apart from the science fiction that followed.

There are certainly parts of the novel that have not aged well. The Baron Harkonnen, as the book's only gay character, is a sinister and possibly-pedophilic rapist. The mysticism comes across as hokey, particularly its strange gender stereotypes. Women are both well-drawn--Jessica is a fascinating protagonist that anticipates Sarah Connor--and yet also trapped in a pseudo-medieval society that makes them either bargaining chips or machiavellian manipulators. And sometimes the writing crosses over from gothic into pulp: must all the villains be physically repulsive?

That said, the rest of the book retains its power to predict and surprise. In today's light, of course, it's a little disturbing: essentially, Dune tells the story of a charismatic leader who, after consuming a large amount of psychotropic drugs, launches a fanatical religious purge across a declining empire, based on his control of scarce natural resources. And he's the hero! Indeed, Herbert himself seemed deeply ambivalent about whether Paul Maud'Dib should be considered admirable, or even sane. Originally conceived during a time when OPEC was first entering the scene and the environmentalist movement was gaining momentum, Dune's become relevant again.

Which is why I thought of it in the first place: while people keep mentioning Rand or Vinge when daydreaming about the future, I tend to think more about Dune. That's not to say that I think we should be modeling policy on it, any more than we should be encouraging rich geniuses to withdraw from society or hoping that the robots will save us all. But as a kind of fable, the themes of Arrakis--corruption, terrorism, geoforming, preoccupation with peak resources--are probably a better framework for considering problems in the real world. Still not a very good framework, I'd say. But better.

March 13, 2009

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Review: Kindle 2

If you weren't going to get the first Kindle, you probably don't want the second version. The substantive criticisms--DRM, relatively slow screen refresh, skimpy non-ebook featureset--still remain. And of course, the very silly complaints of many tech bloggers, like adding a touch interface or color screen, have been completely ignored. This is an upgrade, not a completely new device. Do I recommend it to newcomers? Absolutely. Do you need it if you own the first one? Not necessarily.

Amazon has answered some of the criticisms of Kindle 1.0. The buttons are harder to press accidentally, the selection roller is gone, and it's a lot thinner. Basically, where the design of the original was meant to evoke a book, with angles for the "spine" and a planed right side that mimicked the fall of pages, the new device drops this pretense in favor of more artificial lines. Mostly this is for the better. I think the fuss over the original buttons was way overblown personally, and I sometimes miss their huge surface area, which made it easy to hold the Kindle in a variety of positions and still turn pages. But on the other hand, it's a lot lighter now, so the temptation to prop it up or lean it against something is less urgent.

The screen is noticeably faster, and it selectively updates whenever possible, so the fullscreen "flash" is minimized when not actually reading books. That said, it's still e-ink: slow, but very gentle on the eyes. I stare at a computer screen all day, and it's so relaxing to be able to read my e-books on the Kindle screen at the end of the day instead of on another LCD.

In getting rid of the roller wheel and "sparklevision" indicator on the right side, Amazon's had the chance to rethink the interface a bit. The Kindle 2 uses a joystick to move a cursor around the screen instead, and so it provides two more axes that can be used for control. For example, on the home screen, you can move up and down and select books as usual. Pressing left, however, will prompt to delete the selected book, and pressing right will open a navigation menu. Both actions used to take many more clicks, and a lot more time--they've added power without really increasing complexity, which is a good thing. Amazon also moved the wireless switch to software, which is a very good thing once you get used to it--the device prompts you to activate wireless when required, instead of just spitting back an error because the physical switch wasn't enabled. All in all, it's smoother.

They've said that the battery life is better, and I think that's definitely true. It's certainly much improved when it comes to going online--with the old Kindle, I tried not to turn wireless on without a charger handy, because the strain of the cell modem could wipe out a pretty good chunk of the power gauge. The Kindle 2 lasts longer with the wireless off, and it charges via USB, so that's one fewer power adapter I have to carry. Unfortunately, if the battery on a Kindle 1 starts to act up, you can replace it. The new one is built-in, a trend I don't particularly care for. I would have sacrificed a few millimeters for a user-accessible battery.

Since I wrote a review of the first Kindle, the supply situation has also changed. Nowadays, I can get a pretty good selection of what I want to read in digital form. I still buy a fair number of physical books, but fewer than I used to, and I'm arguably reading a lot more. Of course, you don't need the new hardware to benefit from that infrastructure, but it's good to keep in mind if you're thinking about joining up. Arguably, it's more important than any physical aspect of the product.

Here's the thing: like I said a while back, Amazon's big coup with Kindle isn't really about the reader, although that helps, and it's not really about the cost, for all the fuss that's made about it. It's the ease of the whole experience that makes it something special. A Kindle basically gives you a bookstore, a library, and a newstand wherever you go, in a package that fits in most bags or briefcases. If that idea doesn't make you salivate, then it's probably not for you. As a voracious reader, apartment-dweller, and traveler, I think it's a phenomenal device. The new Kindle only makes that better, and I don't regret buying it at all. But if you've got the original and you're happy with it, I wouldn't really say it's a required upgrade.

In conclusion, because I can't resist a cheap laugh, here's the Kindle 2's evil robot voice synthesizer reading from "A Briefer History of Time"--the only book where it will ever sound natural, I'm afraid.

MP3 download

March 4, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Long Now Edition

I need a few more days to gather my thoughts on the new Kindle, but in the meantime, here's what I've been reading since my last set of short reviews.

It's been a while since I did this last--in fact, it was right about when Anathem came out, in September--so I can barely remember a number of the books in my Amazon library list. One of those is Rob Walker's Buying In, about guerrilla marketing campaigns. Chances are, if I'm that vague on it now, it probably wasn't terribly interesting back then.

I'm never entirely sure where I stand on Joe Haldeman. His The Forever War is widely regarded as one of the great sci-fi war novels of the last thirty years, but I haven't read it. What I have read tends to be well-constructed but workman-like, a description that definitely holds for his The Accidental Time Machine. It has its amusing parts, the characters are sympathetic, and the futurism has no embarrassments, but it won't set anyone's world on fire. It's very old-fashioned sci-fi, in a lot of ways.

Karen Traviss's wess'har series is certainly not old-fashioned sci-fi, unless I missed the part where it was a depressing combination of veganism, radical environmentalism, and sexually-transmitted immortality. The books (City of Pearl, Crossing the Line, The World Before, Matriarch, Ally, and Judge) start out as a first-contact story that goes awry when the aliens decide to head to Earth and forcibly impose reforms that would make PETA weak in the knees--and they're (in the story) the good guys. Challenging reading, for me at least, although not in a bad way.

The Graveyard Book is quality, which you'd expect from Neil Gaiman, but it didn't strike me as his best work. Oh, it's better than American Gods, don't get me wrong, but in aping The Jungle Book in structure and tone, it loses a lot of the drive and wit that had marked Anansi Boys. It also strikes me as very much a children's book, even more than Coraline, which was much more disturbing. Still, that's just nitpicking--if you like Gaiman, you won't really have anything to complain about, and if you don't, it won't change your mind.

While watching The Wire a second time with Belle, I read several books by show writers like George Pelecanos and Richard Price. Lush Life by Price falls pretty squarely into the mold of the show, although it's set in Manhattan instead of Baltimore or DC. The book follows the investigation of a fatal shooting and the lives of those involved, as both a police procedural and a portrait of the neighborhood. It's good, and I highly recommend it, but I don't find that it stands out as vividly in my memory as Pelecanos' work. It wanders quite a bit.

Swinging back across genres (I'm just doing this chronologically), we end up at Scott Sigler's Infected. Probably the less said about this the better: it's a kind of gross-out alien invasion tale, strongly redolent of Stephen King. I like Stephen King, personally, but I don't see the need for more than one of him, and this book (which is most similar to Dreamcatcher) does not pick the best parts of King to imitate.

Soldiers of Reason, by Alex Abella, is the story of "the RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire." It's also not terribly interesting, mostly because Abella writes in a very dry, bloodless manner. Still, the subjects of the writing--nuclear strategists like the Wohlstetters and Herman "Dr. Strangelove" Kahn--manage to shine through, a fact which disturbs as often as it intrigues. Whether these people were monstrous or not is unclear. The picture that eventually emerges is more of intellect devoted to the most extreme, possibly inhuman pursuits. I also thought it was interesting that, while the name RAND certainly bears no relation to the Objectivist writer, no parallels were drawn between her emphasis on "objective philosophy" and the think tank's own fanatical devotion to modeling and "systems analysis."

When Donald Westlake died a few months ago, I decided to try one of his Dortmunder novels, starting with What's the Worst that Could Happen? This probably comes as old news to many, but it's really very good. Westlake has a way with comic dialogue that verges on slapstick: my favorite part of the book is a meandering argument between three barflies on barcodes ("'Why do it in code?' the second regular asked him. 'The Code War's over.'" which leads to a commentary on price wars, morse code, Senator Morse, Russia, Russian dressing, and on and on). I'll have to pick up another when I need something to cheer me up.

Because I'm such a fan of Richard K. Morgan's future noir, Amazon always recommended Chris Moriarty's Spin State and Spin Control. The first is a pretty good mystery book complicated by relativity. The second, which brings the characters over to an extrapolated Israeli-Palestinian conflict (seemingly the only population left on a ruined earth) suffers a bit from too many macguffins. I'll admit to being curious as to what she might go next, but I probably won't pick up her books at "hardcover" prices.

Speaking of Richard K. Morgan, he's apparently decided to try his hand at fantasy. The Steel Remains is not, unfortunately, quite as good as his Takeshi Kovacs novels, although it's still a solid read. One could say that all of fantasy is a reaction to Tolkien, but Morgan tries to be subversive instead of destructive (in contrast to Mieville, who attempts to smash the genre open). He also can't help being a little bit technical--there's certainly indications that this is by a SF writer, as opposed to the kinds of magical hand-waving that traditional fantasy writing entails. For people who are unnerved by the Cronenberg-like prose of the New Weird, Morgan's take is progressive without being completely disorienting.

Finally, Bruce Sterling's new book was released for Kindle and hardcover just last week. The Caryatids is a near-future story of society split between venture capitalists and eco-hippies, crossed by six cloned sisters (the "caryatids" of the title). It's been acclaimed by tons of reviewers, including being called the best book of 2009 by Cory Doctorow. Frankly, it's not that great. Over the years, Sterling's characters have grown more and more sketchy, to the point where they're practically puppets moving his story along. The dialog has also suffered: Everyone shouts! Constantly! and uses phrases like "wow wow wow!" Perhaps, as with The Difference Engine, Sterling should always be paired with a more contemplative writer like William Gibson, where his plotting and gadgetry can complement someone with a better ear for speech and description.

...actually, one more note: The New Yorker is on Kindle now. There's no point in reviewing it, but I did want to commend the design of its electronic version. It's highly readable--a sensible menu at the start of the issue, and each article begins with a link that skips to the next, in case you don't want to read Sasha Frere-Jones salivating over Beyonce again. They even seem to have created a separate top menu design for the Kindle 2's joystick controller. This is how digital distribution should be done, and frankly some e-books might want to take notes from it as well. Bravo, New Yorker: it's never been easier to be a snooty East coast elitist.

February 9, 2009

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Page Up

After today's press conference launching the Kindle 2, Amazon must be feeling pretty good. The new hardware looks solid: better screen response, improved casing, and slightly longer battery life. Overall, not a leap above the first revision, but a solid step forward. As someone who spends a lot of time with the Kindle, and liked the original version, it was enough to get me to pre-order--which'll make Belle happy, since she'll get the old one.

But while it's always nice to get better hardware, and while I remain a huge fan of what Amazon's done, I do still have a few software nitpicks, and I haven't seen any sign that they're going to be corrected yet. These changes should really be made on both new and old devices, just as Amazon managed to upgrade the firmware of my original Kindle today for its multi-reader sync functionality (note that there's no word on whether first-gen Kindles will get software-based features like creepy robot text-to-speech, either).

  1. Sample clearance: The sample functionality of the Kindle store, letting readers try out the first chapters of a book before buying, is one of its better ideas. I think the samples are often too short (I rarely am grabbed by a book so quickly), but it's one of those things that just makes sense in a digital book market.

    Here's the problem: say you finish a book sample, and at the end of it you click the link reading "Buy this book." The Kindle takes care of purchasing and downloading the full version. But it doesn't get rid of the sample, and it doesn't set your progress to the same place in the new file. So now you have to manually delete the sample, and then re-locate your place in the book to continue reading. This is not an ideal workflow. The Kindle should either replace the sample with the download, preserving your location, or it should copy over the bookmark and delete the sample from the library.

  2. Round Filing: Like the sample functionality, one of the Kindle's strengths is that it backs up your collection to Amazon's servers, including any notes you've made and your progress through different books. You can delete books to make space, knowing that they'll always be available for re-download. In this, as with Steam, Amazon got something very right.

    But while they store everything, they don't provide any facility to prune that collection. There are books I've bought that I know I'll never read again--either because they weren't great, they were time-constrained, or because they were, in fact, so terrible that I never even want to think about them again. I can't remove these books from my library. I can't even hide them from the device. It's not that it's hard to navigate the library--far from it, the keyboard makes it a snap. But to my fevered imagination, it should be snappier.

  3. NetFront to Back: I don't use the browser on the Kindle much. This is partially because I have better options via smartphone. And it's partially because the Kindle's e-ink screen is never going to be a fantastic browsing experience. But I suspect it's mostly because the "experimental" web browser, a Java port of Access NetFront, is really terrible: sluggish, unstable, and ugly. It's not that I need Firefox on the machine--I recognize both the inherent limitations of the hardware, and the impracticality of rendering modern AJAX pages on e-ink. But something at the level of, say, Opera Mini would be a welcome improvement. Even Lynx might be a step up, honestly.

Future - Present - Past