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February 4, 2009

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

The Quick Read

John Siracusa has written an interesting "history of the e-book" from the publisher's point of view at Ars this week. Siracusa worked for Peanut Press, one of the earliest digital book vendors--I remember them from when I was using a Palm IIIxe to read on long car trips in college. The article sags around the middle, where (as the site's resident Mac greybeard) he complains incredulously about Apple's failure to enter the market in any organized way. One wonders why he'd want them in the market in the first place, given the proclivity toward censorship that they've already shown in their app store, but I guess for some people the dream dies hard.

Still, toward the end, Siracusa discusses his own conversion to e-books on a Palm device, and it rings familiar to me:

At a certain point, I realized I'd read my last five or six books on this thing. Without noticing, I'd gone off paper books entirely. Only then did I take the time to examine what had happened. Why was reading off of this tiny PDA not just tolerable, but (apparently) satisfying enough to keep me from returning to paper books?

Here's what I came up with. First, I was more likely to have my Palm with me than a book. When I had an opportunity to read during the day, my Palm was there, and a paper book, had I been in the middle of one, would not have been. (Incidentally, this also lead to a vast expansion of the definition of "an opportunity to read.") Second, I could read in the dark next to my sleeping wife without disturbing her with bright lights and page-turning noises. (The tan-on-black reader color theme was affectionally known as "wife mode" at Peanut Press.) Third, I was loathe to give up the ability to tap any word I didn't understand and get its dictionary definition.

Having now owned the Kindle for just over a year now, and having read e-books for many years, Siracusa's comments on convenience have the most resonance for me. That's why I like the format, and if it takes off, that's why I expect it to happen.

The great advantage of reading on a PDA, back when I owned one, was that it was always there. It eliminates downtime, and turns it into just another chance to get some reading done. Belle makes fun of me, because I carry gadgetry with me everywhere to deal with boredom, but there's something to be said for literature as an interstitial activity.

What Amazon did right with the Kindle was that they built on that on-demand aspect of the e-book. Sure, the hardware itself is larger, but people have bags and briefcases for a reason. More importantly, that Whispernet connection means that I can not only continue reading anywhere, I can start reading anywhere I want. Someone can mention a book to me, I can say "yeah, that sounds interesting," and in a couple of minutes (assuming it's on the service, for which the odds are not too bad) I can be reading it. There's no physical trip involved at all, and that's a vastly superior experience.

See, I like computers, and I like hardware that interoperates with them. I'm a fan of phones that can connect to my Outlook address book, and I like being able to browse the filesystem of my devices. But when it comes down to it, if I have to return to home base to load up a new set of books, I might as well just be reading on a laptop screen. And when I'm traveling, if I have to unpack the laptop to buy new reading material, I'm not going to bother--it's easier to go over and buy a magazine. More than anything else, it's the convenience that sets e-books apart from their physical counterparts. The Kindle gets that right: despite all its other flaws, it is focused on being a very, very convenient device. And for that I love it.

November 6, 2008

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Retronomicon

Post-Anathem, I have had a mental itch to scratch regarding Neal Stephenson. How is it, I wondered, that the author of Zodiac--an eco-thriller that explicitly dealt with the environmental impacts of unrestricted capitalists--had ended up writing books that were so tedious, so plainly self-interested? And had Cryptonomicon, as I remembered, really been the turning point when I began to find him unreadable? I went back and flipped through the book to check myself.

It's worse than even I had thought.

First, and what's most striking given recent political events, Cryptonomicon reads now like a lengthy, pulped-up pamphlet from Ron Paul. In its fascination with electronic cash and the gold standard, the book was dated even at the time of writing (remember, Paypal made its debut only a few months after publication, and the bubble burst in Silicon Valley a year later). Like seemingly all libertarian fantasies, there's a lot of water, boats, and islands involved. Reading it critically, one is struck by the attempt to normalize some pretty wild ideologies, like tying Holocaust prevention to the possession of homemade automatic firearms. Pull back from the engaging spy-counterspy plot for even a second, and the whole thing starts to unravel, particularly since the dot-com bust has put a lot of its present-day speculation to death. Indeed, the WWII sections are still the strongest in the book, if only because they focus on a character who is not A) a self-indulgent technocrat or B) a particularly deep thinker.

But what I remember bothering me even as I read Cryptonomicon for the first time in college, is the dinner-party flashback in which he viciously burns a strawman of liberal arts and academia. In a novel that often goes out of its way to champion nerdiness (particularly the unexplainable romantic plotline, in which the tough-but-beautiful girl seems to fall for the protagonist through a courtship that bears no resemblance to human behavior), the dinner party stands out as a towering triumph of misplaced Mary Sue dialog.

To set the scene, Stephenson's main character, Randy, is initially in a relationship with Charlene, who is a caricature of a feminist shrew. A graduate student at a Berkeley-esque college, her character is established when she takes exception with Randy's beard, and turns it into a pretentious academic crusade:

She pulled down statistics on racial variation in beard growth. American Indians didn't grow beards, Asians hardly did, Africans were a special case because daily shaving gave them a painful skin condition. "The ability to grow heavy, full beards as a matter of choice appears to be a privilege accorded by nature solely to white males," she wrote.

Alarm bells, red lights, and screaming klaxons went off in Randy's mind when he happened across that phrase.

[...]

Charlene published the results of a survey she had organized, in which a few hundred women were asked for their opinions. Essentially all of them said that they preferred clean-shaven men to those who were either stubbly or bearded. In short order, Charlene proved that having a beard was just one element of a syndrome strongly correlated to racist and sexist attitudes, and to the pattern of emotional unavailability so often bemoaned by the female partners of white males, especially ones who were technologically oriented.

"The boundary between Self and Environment is a social construct. In Western cultures this boundary is supposed to be sharp and distinct. The beard is an outward symbol of that boundary, a distancing technique. To shave off the beard (or any body hair) is to symbolically annihilate the (essentially specious) boundary separating Self from Other . . ."

And so on. The paper was rapturously received by the peer reviewers and immediately accepted for publication in a major international journal.

Subtle. There's also a short paragraph about how Charlene doesn't want to have kids because they mean conflict, and "Conflict, acted out openly and publicly, was a male mode of social interaction--the foundation for patriarchal society which brought with it the usual litany of dreadful things." Having laid on the satire with a trowel, establishing Charlene as the kind of moral-relativist harpy that results when women leave the kitchen and start reading, Stephenson then gives her a male counterpart for Randy to verbally demolish. Dr. G.E.B. Kivistik is invited by Charlene to a dinner during a conference on "War as Text." Kivistik is portrayed as a know-it-all contrarian currently involved in a crusade against the Internet:
"How many slums will we bulldoze to build the Information Superhighway?" Kivistik said. This profundity was received with thoughtful nodding around the table.

Jon shifted in his chair as if Kivistik had just dropped an ice cube down his collar. "What does that mean?" he asked. Jon was smiling, trying not to be a conflict-oriented patriarchal hegemonist. Kivistik in response, raised his eyebrows and looked around at everyone else, as if to say Who invited this poor lightweight? Jon tried to dig himself out from his tactical error, as Randy closed his eyes and tried not to wince visibly. Kivistik had spent more years sparring with really smart people over high table at Oxford than Jon had been alive. "You don't have to bulldoze anything. There's nothing there to bulldoze," Jon pleaded.

"Very well, let me put it this way," Kivistik said magnanimously--he was not above dumbing down his material for the likes of Jon. "How many on-ramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway?"

Despite himself, Randy leaps to the Internet's defense, insisting that the "Information Superhighway" is a terrible metaphor, and using his UNIX nerd cred as authority to dictate which ideas are good or bad (as opposed to "the usual academician's ace in the hole: everything is relative, it's all just differing perspectives."). Kivistik, not without reason, points out that Randy gained that authority as a member of an elite, and as such should perhaps not be making decisions for everyone else. This is seen as a grave injustice:

"I strenuously object to being labeled and pigeonholed and stereotyped as a technocrat," Randy said, deliberately using oppressed-person's language, maybe in an attempt to turn their weapons against them but more likely (he thinks, lying in bed at three A.M. in the Manila Hotel) out of an uncontrollable urge to be a prick. Some of them, out of habit, looked at him soberly; etiquette dictated that you give all sympathy to the oppressed. Others gasped in outrage to hear these words coming from the lips of a known and convicted white male technocrat. "No one in my family has ever had much money or power," he said.

"I think that the point that Charlene's making is like this," said Tomas, one of their houseguests who had flown in from Prague with his wife Nina. He had now appointed himself conciliator. He paused long enough to exchange a warm look with Charlene. "Just by virtue of coming from a scientific family, you are a member of a privileged elite. You're not aware of it--but members of privileged elites are rarely aware of their privileges."

Randy finished the thought. "Until people like you come along to explain to us how stupid, to say nothing of morally bankrupt, we are."

Let's set aside the poor-little-white-male victimhood schtick for a second, since it's patently transparent. Look at Kivistik's original question, the one Randy derides so readily: How many onramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway? If you strip away the metaphor, all he's asking is "who's going to make sure the poor can also access the advantages that the Internet brings?" This isn't some far-fetched academic pretense: it's a classic question of the Digital Divide. Perhaps a superhighway is indeed a bad metaphor for this, although I think it actually works rather well. But to argue about the highway, instead of connectivity for the poor, is to miss Kivistik's point entirely.

And in a book written by an honest author, instead of one using his protagonist as a mouthpiece for radical cyber-selfishness, a professor from Yale would point that out. But Cryptonomicon is not that book, sadly. That the author is capable of writing these sentences himself, and then misinterpreting his own words, is a sign of a shocking lack of empathy with his characters. And yet, I get no sense that he's writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, since the same tone of self-congratulatory geekishness pervades the entire story. As a college student still trying to get a grasp on criticism, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Nowadays, I'm more and more convinced that this was the exact moment I started to sour on Stephenson.

September 18, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»stephenson_n

Anathem

To get to the point: Yes, Anathem is disappointing.

Reading the book, it was hard for me to keep from comparing it to Snow Crash, Stephenson's breakthrough work. As far as I'm concerned, Anathem is his first real attempt at worldbuilding since then. Like the earlier book, it contains vast swathes of exposition on the central plot conceit--then a mashup of Chomsky's universal grammar and Sumerian legends, now a confusing muddle of quantum mechanics and Western philosophy. And the two have a kind of elite-vs.-the-masses viewpoint underlying their narrative, which in both cases is ambiguous if not a little disturbing. But sadly, Anathem's no Snow Crash. It's talkier, longer, duller, and far less fun to read.

Stephenson sets his story in a world called Arbre, in which the medieval system of monastaries/convents and uneducated masses has been recreated, and which has apparently persisted for thousands of years. During this time, the monks have been sacked three times by the "Saecular" nations during revolutions, and each time they've become even more spare and inwardly focused. Each convent only opens itself to the public at predetermined intervals--some every day, some every decade, and a very few only at century and millenial ends. One year, just after his group temporarily unlocks its gates at the start of the decade, a monk named Erasmas gets swept up in a complicated conspiracy when a spaceship appears above Arbre for the first time.

The setting isn't bad--it's kind of a postmodern Canticle for Leibowitz--and Erasmas is an inoffensive, if slightly bland, character to stand in for the reader. But the plot, almost 1,000 pages of it, just isn't that exciting. Worse, it's punctuated by long stretches of characters standing around explaining quantum mechanics to each other through unexciting metaphors. Like a lot of sci-fi, setting up a central idea isn't unexpected: Snow Crash did a lot of the same thing, but it also had two things going for it: first, it had two characters to switch between when the going got too tedious, and second, the intervening action was a lot more exciting. Granted, it was a tall tale and this is not. But there, if you skipped the stories about En and the Tower of Babel, you got to read about Y.T. the skateboard Kourier and Hiro the greatest swordfighter/hacker in the world. Even in the parts of the Baroque Cycle that I've read, in between treatises on 18th century commerce, there are pirates and political intrigues. Here, your reward for skipping exposition would be either a slog across the equivalent of the north pole (somehow rendered without drama) or a list of mathematically-precise maneuvers in zero-G.

But even if you dig the plot and the discussion, I've also got bones to pick with the technical aspects of the writing in Anathem's pages. For one thing, Stephenson's apparently just given up completely on writing a realistic female character (which is a shame, given how much fun Y.T. was). For another, every character in Anathem has pretty much the same voice, which is in turn pretty much the same as Stephenson's authorial voice. We saw hints of this in Cryptonomicon, which tended to blend its protagonists voice with the prose style, but it's extremely pronounced here, and the result reads in a kind of stilted, geekish monotone. If nothing else, I wonder what kind of barbarity contractions must have performed on Stephenson in the past, he shuns them so readily. The author also continues his long history of setting up liberal-arts straw men for his scientific protagonists to knock down--a tendency he's had since Zodiac, although it only became truly pronounced in Cryptonomicon, which featured a disconcertingly vicious parody of relativism and academia.

There's nothing wrong with writing concept novels. That's why we have science fiction. But great concept novels need to be thought-provoking, and Anathem isn't. After you break down the speeches and the theorizing, without spoiling anything, what you're left with just isn't terribly interesting or novel. The setting's separated communities are never really used for anything other than some deus ex machina, and their potential for commentary or satire is largely wasted. I finished the book feeling like I had myself been locked in a dusty room for too long, and was glad I could finally open the gates.

September 9, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Pros and Cons

Traveling to St. Paul was a great chance to clear out a bunch of the samples I'd been saving on my Kindle. As long as you're traveling in the US, where the EVDO connection has packets to grab, it's a handy device to have at the airport. Here are a few capsule reviews, including ones left over from the last set.

Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff, has been endorsed highly by Boing Boing on the strength of the writing and the cover art. The latter should be a warning sign. It's a book about a secret organization that assassinates evil people ("bad monkeys") in the name of justice, and one girl's induction into it. As secret conspiracies go, this one is kind of lame, honestly, and a lot of its gimmicks (like the "natural causes gun") have been handled better by other authors (see: Iain Banks). There's the eventual double-cross, and what the author no doubt considers a trick ending, but in the end it comes across as unsympathetic and random--like the Illuminatus trilogy but without the wit or the excuse of heavy drug use.

Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora (and its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies) are basically crime caper novels set in a "new weirdist" city somewhat along the lines of China Mieville's Bas Lag. It's not quite so distant from reality, however: if it weren't for a few details that crop up, their plotlines could easily be dropped into renaissance Italy. Lynch has several more books planned in this setting, and I hope he keeps it grounded, since both efforts are tightly plotted and stuffed with fun characters and clever dialog.

I haven't seen Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational get nearly the attention it deserves, so allow me to praise it here. A book about the psychological externalities of behavioral economics, Ariely devotes each chapter to an experiment that explores market participants' odd and imperfect decisions. He also concludes each chapter with thoughtful suggestions on how this should affect public policy, particularly policy based on the fallacy of the "rational consumer." The result is a practical and ultimately humane look at structuring the world around human nature, instead of free market ideology.

The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester, is the biographical story of Joseph Needham, who developed an interest in Chinese history late in life and began writing the Science and Civilization in China series about its early technological discoveries. Needham is a fascinating character: a would-be renaissance man, an exceptionally quick study at languages, and a communist blinded by his politics to the hard truths of Mao's revolution. But I suspect that this book, while competently written, is most engaging to people who are fans of Needham's work, or those who share a similarly glowing view of the Middle Kingdom.

Speaking of imports from Asia, Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque caught my eye because I kept seeing her previous novel, Out, in the mystery section of the bookstore--it's not available on Kindle, though. Which is too bad, because I hear it's got a number of virtues that Grotesque is entirely lacking. A kind of bizarre ugly-duck story, it's about two sisters, one of whom is beautiful but manipulative and oversexed while the other is unattractive (but still manipulative and unpleasant). I'm all for flawed characters, but there's not one person in the book with a real redeeming feature, and the narration is plodding and unreliable. It was work to finish, with little payout in the end.

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is an unapologetic homage to Heinlein's Starship Troopers with a few twists. Scalzi's a competent writer with a deft hand at sarcasm, but I guess I've outgrown the source material. What is it someone once said: the golden age for sci-fi is 10 or 11? Yeah. Also, while this is perhaps to be expected from a book that celebrates the Military Fascism of the Future, there's a truly loathsome strawman for pacifist liberal appeasers in there that left a bad taste in my mouth. Since I know Scalzi's a better writer (and, I had thought, a clearer thinker) than that, the venom of it frankly took me by surprise, and made it a little hard to enjoy the rest of the plot.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds is kind of an odd one. The first novel by Cherie Priest, it's a kind of Southern gothic ghost story that can't make up its mind which side of the fence it's on. When it restricts itself to the main character's navigation through her rotten family tree, it's on much more solid ground than the mystical tangents into voodoo, which overtake the ending and overwhelm what's otherwise a wry, well-written book with a clever--if noticably Mary Sue-ish--protagonist.

I don't read very much hard science fiction these days, but Robert Charles Wilson's Spin was offered free as part of a Tor promotion, and you can't beat that price. I tried a lot of the free books, and didn't make it past the first chapter on most, but I liked Spin. Wilson's big idea is that aliens surround the Earth in a time-dilation envelope, where a small amount of time inside is the equivalent of thousands of years outside. I liked the description of the worldwide reaction (or non-reaction, in many cases) and the relationship of the narrator to a pair of twin siblings who split off on very different courses as a result. If I had to compare Spin to its predecessors, I'd probably say it evokes classic A. C. Clarke as much as anyone, and that's not a bad thing at all.

As a huge fan of The Wire (finishing season five now), I picked up Felicia "Snoop" Pearson's autobiography Grace After Midnight. Eh. Onscreen, Snoop's strength is her laconic delivery and sense of businesslike menace, neither of which is present here, and the heavy hand of the ghostwriter manages to crush most of the remaining personality right out. The story of how a crack baby from Baltimore grew up on the streets and then ended up playing herself on HBO deserves a better telling than this. Too bad there's not an audiobook.

Maybe she should have teamed up with Wire writer George Pelecanos, who just came out with The Turnaround. Compared to The Night Gardener, it's less procedural, more concerned with inheritance and family. The book starts during the eighties, when three white kids in DC drive into a black neighborhood and start a racially-motivated fight, ending with one of them shot and another scarred. Moving to the present day, Pelecanos depicts how the participants on both sides of the color line have lived since the incident, how they react when it resurfaces, and the healing that takes place afterward. I don't think it's quite as evocative as The Night Gardener, and Pelecanos has a tendency to tell instead of showing. But I like what he's doing with crime fiction, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to non-genre readers.

Finally, two books that everyone's probably already read from the literary fiction category: Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. The former is a kind of mystery story told by an autistic kid, which has gotten great reviews but I eventually found tiresome--particularly in the second half, when it switches genres into road trip territory. The latter is a good story hobbled by glacial pacing and a strong dose of melodrama--particularly in the second half, which has an almost Shakespearian view of romance-as-deus-ex-machina, and not in a good way. So: let's hear it for disappointing second halves!

As a side note, Neal Stephenson's Anathem was released today (it's ten dollars cheaper on Kindle, so you know which version I've ordered). I don't have high hopes. Stephenson started strong with the brilliant Snow Crash, as well as the underrated Big U and Zodiac. Then he seemed to get a bit muddled with The Diamond Age, began careening around libertarian conspiracy theories in Cryptonomicon, and finally stymied my reading efforts completely with the System of the World trilogy, in which he apparently eschewed any kind of editing in favor of page upon page of regurgitated background research. I'm also not optimistic when he describes the title of his new book in an interview as "one letter away from 'anthem' or 'anathema'." But you never know. Maybe this one will be the book that makes me care again.

July 29, 2008

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Red Right Hand

The best part of the Hellboy stories is the freakish stone hand of the main character. Hellboy's Right Hand of Doom is coveted by every two-bit monster and shadowy figure in the cosmos, generally because they believe the Hand can bring about the apocalypse through a variety of unsavory methods. Said methods are never fully explained, but they generally involve the Ogru Jahad, giant, Cthulhu-like squid things trapped beyond space and time, and as such are probably fairly unpleasant.

Similarly, Hellboy himself seems to be an object of some reverence in his adventures, since he was originally Anung un Rama, the fiery-crowned demon born to end the world as we know it. The monsters Hellboy meets fully expect him to live up to his destiny, and are downright eager for him to start the festivities.

And this is where the genius of the character comes in: he's just not interested in filling that role. Raised by Professor Bruttenholm as a typical army brat, Hellboy doesn't see himself as Anung un Rama. He doesn't particularly feel like destroying the world, with either hand. And he's increasingly exasperated by the inability of the supernatural world to get these simple facts through their thick skulls, despite ample repetition. Hellboy has reinvented himself, while the shadowy world that created him refuses to change--a dynamic character surrounded by the static, archetypical trappings of fairy tales and penny-dreadful mythology.

I've never been entirely sure if this is a commentary, a running joke, or just an device that author Mike Mignola used to get his characters into position. It's probably the latter. But I've always loved the idea that Hellboy represents: that no-one's stuck in a role from birth, that destiny is a load of hogwash, and that we are not trapped by the myths of the past--nor are we particularly obligated to take them seriously.

Although the first film centered somewhat around this theme, the second abandoned it for more well-worn tropes (along with some casual misogyny), and I thought that was a real shame. There are lots of fictional places we can go to learn that outsiders need love too, or that action-movie protagonists have a certain kinship with their antagonists. But the conceit of Hellboy is more than just the importance of "being yourself." At heart it's a rejection of the idea that "yourself" is static, or that fate is anything other than a human creation--a vindication of Richard Rorty's anti-foundationalism, among other things. It's also an explicit statement that the time for listening to myths and folklore uncritically is over--Hellboy pays attention and respects his supernatural encounters, but more importantly he studies them and trims off those parts that can't coexist with modern civilization.

You would think that this would be more common in American fiction. We're a culture with a brief national history, a short attention span, and a fetish for rugged individualism. Yet much like the muddled ideology of 300, I think this is surprisingly hit-or-miss. American films tend to conflate destiny with a person's internal character. Self-discovery is seen as noble. Reinvention of self is not, and in fact it's often punished: characters that attempt to do so are often shown being humiliated when the mask is pulled away. You can be anything you want, as long as it's something you already are.

Likewise, Hollywood likes to venerate the past, with ancient prophecies and tragic fates galore. Granted, these are well-worn dramatic devices, but just once I'd like to see a hero dismiss an old legend as baseless superstition ("Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist.") and not pay for it later ("Argh!").

I imagine that in both the movies and in the comics, it must be tremendously limiting to live in a world so constrained by the flow of myth and narrative. It is one thing to say "with great power comes great responsibility." But it's also kind of sad that these characters don't really seem to get a choice. If they get superpowers, suddenly they're not allowed to become doctors or actors or writers or accountants, jobs that don't involve flying or clobbering or wearing ridiculous costumes. It's like a weird kind of typecasting. "You can set fires with your mind? Well, never mind that important non-profit work, then: time to go ignite some petty criminals."

So, I guess, here's to Hellboy, who breaks the mold. Not very much, or very wide, perhaps--cracks the mold might be more accurate. But as Leonard Cohen once wrote (so I'm told--I've never listened to the guy): "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

June 24, 2008

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Wright Off

Proving that sometimes free distribution can yield benefits, Tor Books has been giving away one of their titles each week on Kindle. Last week it was John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos, the first part of a trilogy. Having just finished Nixonland, I was in need of some lighter fare, and I gave it a shot. Then, because I'm a sucker for pulp trilogies, I bought and read the other two Chaos books.

At that point, some parts of the narrative irritated me. So I decided to look Wright up, first via Wikipedia, which then led me to an interview with the man and his Livejournal. This may have been a mistake: both reveal Wright as a tremendously unpleasant person.

It's not just that he's a blowhard, because many writers are. And it's not just that he's my political opposite, or that he's zealously converted from atheism to catholicism. Those are jarring, but they don't break the novels. Reading his online rants, on the other hand, was more distressing. Wright refers to women with extremely regressive phrasing, including the description of women engaging in premarital sex as "unpaid whores." He's also fervently homophobic, referring to affection between gay people as (I quote from memory, but it's close) "something from which normal people naturally recoil in revulsion."

Understand that to me these are not "political" issues. CQ asks its employees, rightfully so, to avoid partisan debate. But I see these as questions of human rights: Wright is not even discussing something like gay marriage or abortion, on which unreasonable people might disagree. He's just outright stating that sexually active women and gay people are monsters.

Needless to say, my perspective on the books is now a little soured. I believe I told Belle I'd kind of like to pack them up and send them back to him.

I felt bad about this, honestly. I don't want to be one of those people who pre-judges their media consumption based on the personal leanings of the artist--reviewing movies based on the trailers, for example, as the hapless targets of Roy Edroso's Alicublog have been known to do. Good rhetorical practice is supposed to mean that the speaker's own views are irrelevant to the argument (although I am also partial to Daniel Davies' statement that there's no fancy Latin term for "giving known liars the benefit of the doubt").

And besides, fiction isn't an argument, is it? Surely it does fiction a disservice to throw it into a flat ideological viewpoint with the rest of the spin?

Well, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Fiction can, after all, be an argument. It can be powerful and appropriate--To Kill A Mockingbird comes to mind. Other times, embedding rhetoric in fiction can be disastrous. I'm as big a fan of Iain Banks as you're likely to find, and I probably agree with much of his politics, but even I am put off by his occassional injections of partisan speechmaking in his mainstream fiction--particularly to the detriment of The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Dead Air.

Indeed, I believe that even viewpoints I disagree with can support and enrich fiction. I started thinking last night about C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, for example. I loathe Lewis's non-fiction and essay writing, which I consider intellectually sloppy and manipulative. But I read the Narnia stories as a kid, even after learning that they're filled with the same views that generated Lewis's non-fiction output, and enjoyed them. I suspect I'd find them readable today. Lewis was not much of an original thinker, but he was a pretty good storyteller, and his ideology does give the books a richness--particularly since he seems to use them as much to explore that ideology as to expound on it. Understanding Lewis's perspective, even if one disagrees with it, allows the reader a deeper and more interesting perspective on the stories, but they're still fine children's stories without it.

The inverse of Lewis is Ayn Rand. Rand also espouses a philosophy with which I personally disagree. But she commits a greater sin: she simply can't write. Her books are compelling fiction the way a rainbow trout is a compelling public speaker. I don't hate Rand because she started Objectivism. I hate her because I read 700 pages of Atlas Shrugged, at which point I lapsed into a coma and had to be nursed back to health through gentle readings of early-era Heinlein.

Perhaps this is where I find most fault with the combination of Wright's viewpoints with his fiction. Without knowing how Wright looks at the world, his books are decent reads that suffer from some overcooked prose and cardboard characterizations, along with a few troubling details or plot devices (I felt similarly about his earlier work, in case anyone suspects sour grapes). Learning about his ideology (particularly his outlook on women--unsurprisingly, homosexuality is largely absent from the Chaos books) does not enrich the reading experience, but heightens those unsettling moments that might otherwise have been discounted in the final analysis: the disjointed sexual scenes and obsession with submission, the heroine's bizarre lack of personal agency (despite her idolization of great explorers), the reinforcement of domestic female stereotypes, shout-outs to Margaret Thatcher...

When I started looking for New Dissent links, one of the more insightful blogs I ran across was Ethan Zuckerman's "My Heart's in Accra." Zuckerman is interested in breaking people of their homophily--love of the same--and in that spirit he started the Global Voices Online aggregator of commentary from around the world. But of course, there's also a kind of homophily in American life--the kind of partisan cultural split hinted at by Nixonland. I am not terribly good at breaking out of that homophily. Too much of my non-fiction reading tends to fit my existing worldview, and I should probably work on expanding that range.

For entertainment, however, I've tried to be more open: I don't boycott movies because I disagree with their stars, or games just because I disagree with their representatives (Sins of a Solar Empire publisher Stardock is run by a rabid neo-conservative). Within certain limits, I'd hope to extend the courtesy of art over politics, as with Lewis. I've never been really sure what those limits would be--where I would draw the line at the cash register. I suppose if nothing else, I owe Wright thanks for helping to more concretely identify the boundaries I don't want to cross.

May 9, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»doctorow_c

Book Review: Little Brother

Little Brother is Atlas Shrugged for teenage crypto-freaks. It's too long, too preachy, and too self-aware to function as a decent piece of fiction, and it's too frothing to convincingly act as rhetoric. It will probably be a huge hit online.

I'm unhappy that I feel this way, because I really did enjoy Cory Doctorow's previous book, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Although it too had its moments of "Look! A tech issue that Cory Doctorow thinks is cool!", the writing elsewhere more than made up for the awkward shoe-horning of Boing Boing material into the story, and there were decent narrative excuses for that material's presence.

Not so with Little Brother, which is explicitly attempting to be a primer on data privacy issues for 15-year-olds. Like most young adult fiction with a message, it fails on several levels: its hero is gratingly eager and overcompetent, the voice is an embarrassing imitation of "youth", and the villains are cardboard cutouts. I think the last point is the most annoying, because to me it's insulting to the reader. By ignoring many of the deeper political implications of the issues it raises, and reducing them instead to "bad people want to spy on us," Little Brother actually does a disservice to its readers.

Shrill. Shrill is the word I'm looking for. Little Brother has a kind of desparation to it, clearly informed by Doctorow's own feelings on data privacy issues. And while there are some readers who may respond to that, who may get a kick out of the step-by-step instructions for fighting The Man, I thought I would never be able to struggle through the last hundred pages of it. It's hard to say whether I would have felt the same way as a teenager--I used to read Piers Anthony, after all. I don't even know what I would recommend instead, but there's got to be something better than this. Maybe Doctorow can even write that book, now that he's gotten this one out of his system.

April 2, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Shelf: Nerds Like Recursion Edition

So here's another small gripe in an otherwise happy experience: Kindle OS updates bring with them new screensaver images--the pictures that take over the screen when the Kindle is locked. Many of these have been of famous authors. Of those, only one of them (Maya Angelou) has been a person of color, and all of them (as far as I can remember) have been from English-speaking countries. This is a little bit unfortunate on an e-book platform where the back of it has been plastered with letters of about a million alphabets, paying homage to writing systems all over the world.

The reason for the title of the post, of course, is that there's a certain redundancy to reading David Anderegg's Nerds in electronic form. Anderegg, a child psychologist, basically takes a look at the concept of "a nerd," how it affects children, and what people can do about it. It's not a bad book, and raises some interesting points, but it's also a little fluffy and scatterbrained in parts. My favorite chapter was the discussion of autism, Asperberger's, the misdiagnosis and overmedication of both in children, and their usage as signifiers of unhealthiness and sickness on the part of nerds.

Grey, by Jon Armstrong, is a weird book. It's also free from publishers Night Shade Books, so it has that going for it. I can't necessarily recommend it, but at this price all you've got to lose is your time. So if you think you might like a dystopian sci-fi fashion-centric family drama, it might be worth checking out.

Adam-Troy Castro's Emissaries from the Dead is somewhat like the Takeshi Kovacs books I like so much--a murder mystery in a sci-fi, slightly transhumanist setting. The resolution of the actual mystery could stand to be a bit more satisfying, but the pace moves briskly and it has a few twists and turns up its sleeve. The book is billed as "an Andrea Cort novel" which I assume means that sequels will follow. I'd probably give one of them a shot.

On a much more grounded note, I highly recommend Bob Harris's Who Hates Whom: Well Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up - A Woefully Incomplete Guide. It's a world tour of conflict and war, essentially. Harris is a former Jeopardy champion and comedian, the latter of which gives the book the light touch that's needed to keep it from being a mindbogglingly-depressing 200 pages. I felt a little bit guilty about laughing at it sometimes, honestly. But the historical perspective is quite well done. It's amazing to read (or to be reminded) how many countries have been undone by the legacy of colonial invaders who simply redrew borders on a whim.

Polaris, by Jack McDevitt, is another sci-fi mystery (sensing a theme?), but adds a dash of archeology. Notable mainly because the protagonist, pilot Chase Kolpath, is basically a Dr. Watson figure: she's the assistant for the sleuthier character, and that changes the tone from the average potboiler. Well written, but it telegraphs its twist from a mile away. I've read other McDevitt books before, and they always strike me as solid but not earthshattering.

One of the best observations in Jennifer Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles comes early: "Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie," Lee points out. But there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonalds, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined. "How often do you eat apple pie?" she asks. "How often do you eat Chinese?" Although I could pick structural nits (the book reads more like a series of magazine pieces loosely tied together), overall it's both thought-provoking and deftly told (see her comparison of Chinese restaurants and open-source software). A cool look at a cuisine that's American in everything but name.

Shopping for God, by James Twitchell, is a look at the commercialization of Protestantism in America--both in terms of megachurches as well as the degree to which our religious culture is a marketplace. Along with digressions into artifacts like those movable-letter church signs (which are both a decent business as well as a marketing tool for individual churches), Twitchell spends a lot of time explaining church history through an economic/branding lens. I probably would have found this more captivating if I were the kind of person who's nostalgic for the classic small American church tradition.

I suspect that David Mamet may be insane, but I've enjoyed a few of his films, so during a local non-profit's bookstore partnership day, I bought Bambi Vs. Godzilla, which is Mamet's guide to the film industry. It consists of roughly four equal parts: Jewish trivia, lessons in filmmaking, film criticism, and madness. About what you'd expect, in other words. Say what else you like about him, but the man can certainly write, and it might be worth purchasing on that strength alone.

March 12, 2008

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Taking the Public out of Publication

File under "seemed like a good idea at the time": Amazon's Digital Text Platform is a disaster.

In theory, it's great: give anyone the ability to self-publish through Amazon's Kindle Store. It democratizes publishing. It makes more content available on Kindle, and boosts Amazon's numbers for available titles. And it offers a new revenue stream for writers, which I can see as a good thing.

But in practice, it means that any quality controls have been removed--and you don't realize how valuable the QA functions of editors and publishing houses really are until you get rid of them. I am glad that Paul and Bobbie Abell can write about Our Trip to Israel and distribute it to their friends. Likewise, perhaps USWEBGURU really does know How to Make Money on the Internet (in addition to their numerous publications as USHEALTHEXPERT and USDIETEXPERT). And maybe there really is a market for erotic short fiction written by women with terrible lingerie headshots, I don't know. But I didn't want to know, either.

We already have a place where anyone can publish their work online, including in a Kindle-ready .mobi format. It's called the Internet. And I celebrate its openness, I really do. But when I hit the Kindle Store to check for new publications, I don't really want to have to skip past pages of self-published short fiction of unknown quality in order to find something that (at some point) has crossed an editor's desk.

Frankly, even on the web, we rely on editors. How did you find this page? You probably got referred here at some point by another blog whose judgement you trust (and which now you are doubting), or you know me personally. But you had a way of evaluating this content.

Amazon isn't helping matters by dumping tons of public-domain titles into the Kindle store every day with a "new" publication date, using incredibly tasteless public domain images as the "covers" for these titles. Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that I can buy Balzac with better formatting than the Project Gutenberg version for only $1. But it's not a new title, and I shouldn't have to see it when sorting by publication date.

At some point, I'm guessing when Amazon has sufficient title coverage that they're not insecure about it, the Digital Text Platform fluff will be cordoned off. You could do it now--just add an option to filter out any books that don't have a printed version, and that would solve the problem for me. And these problems don't cripple the store now. It's still useful. But it makes browsing for books less enjoyable than it should be. What Amazon attempted to do--opening up the book market to the masses--was a respectable goal. It just hasn't turned out to be a practical one for readers.

February 14, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

The Digital Shelf

In which I make a few specific observations about the Kindle, and also briefly glance over my reading material therein:

I still don't have any problems with the buttons at all, so I don't know what your problem is, butterfingers. But I do have a couple of gripes. First, it would be nice, once I've decided from a sample book to buy the full version, if the Kindle would get rid of the sample for me, instead of making me delete it manually. Also, the selection is getting better, but I still can't guarantee that if I see something great in a bookstore that I'll be able to buy it digitally. Other than that, still a great experience. Let's move on to the reviews.

99 Coffins is a sequel to David Wellington's first novel, 13 Bullets. It's billed as a "historical vampire story," which I guess is true, and the historical twist is fairly clever. That said, I should still have my head checked out for reading vampire fiction. The mutilation fetish in these kinds of books gives me the willies.

The Automatic Detective seemed like a cute idea: a robot death machine changes its mind about the whole "lead the army of doom" idea, becomes a cab driver, gets entangled in a kidnapping mystery. But that's about all it ends up being: a cute idea, supported by a lot of well-meaning fluff. For better future noir, I always recommend Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music.

Or you could read Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, including Broken Angels and Woken Furies. The Kovacs books hew closely to a lot of noir conventions, like the constant abuse taken by the hero, and then throw a loop at it: they're set in a future where people are backed up into chips and can just download into a new body when they die, or whenever they feel like it. What I like about these books, especially the first, is that they're detective/adventure novels first and transhuman gobbledygook second. Unlike a lot of entries into this subgenre, Morgan isn't trying to make his characters into some kind of new creature, as often happens to Charlie Stross or John C. Wright. Anyone who's read Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would recognize Takeshi Kovacs and the various players he encounters. People just die a little harder this time around.

After Dark, Haruki Murakami's most recent book, is a pretty slight little story about a Japanese love hotel, a pair of sisters, and a genial trombone player. It kind of wanders around, and in the end I'm not sure it actually went anywhere, but like all Murakami it's deftly written magical realism and some good dialogue. If you're new to his work, I'd recommend Norwegian Wood instead.

My father suggested J. Maarten Troost's The Sex Lives of Cannibals, and it is indeed pretty good. The memoir of a post-graduate slacker who ends up traveling to a tiny island country in the Pacific when his girlfriend gets an aid job there, it's written with a kind of dry conversational humor that's consistently funny, and sometimes hilarious. The sections on Troost's attempts to spay his adopted cat and dogs, in particular, had me laughing out loud until Belle demanded to know what was so funny.

At the other extreme of climate and tone, The Terror is a fictional account of a real historical expedition that went searching for the Northwest Passage and never returned. The crews of two ships are stranded in the ice, unfamiliar with their surroundings but too proud to turn back until it's too late. The familiar stories--desparation, disaster, mutiny, and even cannibalism--all crop up, exacerbated (and here's where it tips from historical fiction to horror) by a huge, white monster stalking the dwindling party. It's a grim read, but compelling. Having read Simmons' Hyperion books, I knew he could do gothic horror, and The Terror doesn't suffer from the outlandish plot twists that rendered The Fall of Hyperion nearly incoherent.

The less said about The Swarm and Ill Wind, the better. Both are pulp, which I happen to particularly enjoy (the action movies of literature, I believe), but both are also pretty bad at it. The Swarm makes the mistake, early in its eco-thriller plotline, of repeatedly invoking movies with similar plotlines, like Deep Impact, Armageddon, and The Abyss. It's a bad idea to remind the reader that there are other, better versions of your story out there--and when one of those involves Ben Affleck and Michael Bay, that's saying kind of a lot.

As for Ill Wind, it annoyed me by using one of the tropes of lazy writers everywhere--a Hispanic character with a fiery temper who tosses a couple of Spanish words into every paragraph, just in case we forgot that they are, in fact, a spicy Latino stereotype. Those unfortunate enough to have read one of William Shatner's ghostwritten Tekwar novels (cut me a break, I was thirteen and worked in a used bookstore) will recognize this age-old device common to writers who have never actually met a Hispanic American. I realize I'm not reading War and Peace here, but I don't think a hint of self-awareness is too much to ask.

Finally, the best deal I've gotten on the Kindle so far has also been one of the better books I've read. Since I've been enjoying The Wire, I figured I'd try some of writer/producer George Pelecanos' crime novels, starting with The Night Gardener. At $3.99, it's about $3.50 off the paperback price, which is not bad at all. The story starts off looking like a typical serial-killer stomp set in 1985, but then jumps ahead to the present day and proceeds to continually subvert the expected narratives. Over and over again, Pelecanos raises a standard detective novel cliche (the charismatic rebel cop hero, his by-the-book partner, the killer with a gimmick, the old cop obsessed with his last case) and then obliterates it so gently that you might not even notice until you've finished the last page.

Oh, late addition: I almost forgot that I got halfway through Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia before I had to just give up on it. It is a nice feature that the Kindle will always remember my bookmark, even if I delete the book, in the unlikely event that I ever decide to return to it. But until there's also a feature in the software that will make Sacks' book something other than a list of quirky headcases, one after another, I doubt it'll come to that. I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat while I was in college and don't remember it being this tedious, so either that was a really good lecture or Sacks' writing style has really taken a turn for the worse.

Future - Present - Past