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April 10, 2014

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: No Intro Edition

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

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

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

Precision Journalism, by Philip Meyer

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

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

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

Debt, by David Graeber

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

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

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

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

Halo: Kilo-Five trilogy, by Karen Traviss

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

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

Girl Sleuth, by Melanie Rehak

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

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

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

January 29, 2013

Filed under: fiction»reviews

Machine Vision

Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, by Anna Anthropy

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

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

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

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

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

October 24, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»banks_iain

The Hydrogen Sonata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 23, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Seattle Sunburn Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 18, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»mieville

Railsea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 1, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Rainy Season Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 15, 2011

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Medium and Message Edition

Before I get to the mini-reviews of my (mostly) Kindle reading recently, I want to talk about something that's undoubtably very stupid: books based on video games.

Crysis: Legion caught my eye, not because I care (or even know very much about) the game it's based on, but because it's written by Peter Watts. Watts wrote Blindsight, one of the most unnerving books about first contact, and the Rifters trilogy, the world's best underwater contagion disaster novel. He writes cerebral, hard science fiction that draws heavily on his background as a marine biologist. Watts is not, in other words, the guy you immediately imagine as the best candidate to write a book based on a game about robot-suited marines repeatedly shooting aliens in the head.

And sure enough, he can't entirely rescue it. Watts tries his best--a running subplot cognitive prostheses manages to be both creepy and darkly funny--but in the end, it's tied to the plot of the game, and that plot just isn't very good.

At least, it's not very good for a book. For all I know it's fine for a game. But Legion really illustrates how storytelling shifts between these mediums, and not always for the better on the interactive side of things. A game plot is subject to game mechanics: the verbs available to the player are the actions available to the character, and a satisfying experience comes from giving the player new ways to apply those verbs in increasingly complicated or involved circumstances.

So (I'm gathering from the book, granted) in Crysis 2, players can shoot things, they can flip switches, and they can assign energy to a set of suit abilities, such as defense or stealth. These actions are put to use in a series of firefights, directed by secondary characters who tell the player where to go, culminating in set-pieces where he or she has to fight through an alien mechanism to shut it down. For a game, that's plenty (as an FPS, in fact, it's already relying on a vast collection of behavior that players have learned). But it's a frustratingly passive, tedious experience for long-form print fiction, no matter how it's dressed up in an internal monologue and a series of interstitial reports from other points of view.

It doesn't have to be, of course. Just as a movie adaptation of a book has differences due to the change in medium, it's not unreasonable to expect that you could novelize a game. Nor is it intrinsically shameful: people draw their inspiration from all kinds of places (see also: Pirates of the Caribbean, Wicked, or the first Myst novel, none of which are "fine art" but still manage to be perfectly competent entertainment). But you can't do it by narrating the action. Pick a new character, expand the plot, do something unpredictable for heaven's sake.

With that out of the way, here are some of the other books I've read since my last set of reviews.

The Heroes is typical Joe Abercrombie: dark, slightly nihilistic fantasy tinged with gallows humor. It's the kind of thing that undercuts Sady Doyle's recent critique of George R. R. Martin--particularly the part where she describes fantasy literature as an "impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe." Abercrombie, even more than Martin, is not offering any pretense of airbrushing or of a desire to revisit anything. His generic fantasy setting is a miserable place, and his characters know it, which is part of what makes The Heroes so good--it's a careful deconstruction of the kinds of chivalry porn that has, admittedly, made up a respectable chunk of genre fiction. As such, it's probably best appreciated by people who know something about the context, and who don't mind an unhappy ending or three.

Richard Kadrey's Kill the Dead is a perfect example of how not to write a sequel. I read the previous book, Sandman Slim about a year ago, and thought it was a competent (if not exceptional) urban fantasy. That means I've had a year to forget almost everything about Kadrey's universe, and yet Kill the Dead does absolutely nothing to remind the reader about any of the characters, creations, or events of its preceding volume. I spent the entire first 100 pages asked "who? what, again?" and then looking for spoilers online. Combine that with a so-so zombie plot, and this is eminently skippable stuff.

Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their Fans is kind of interesting given that Milestone--the minority-owned studio launched in the 90's--was rolled into the larger DC universe as a part of their recent reboot. Jeffrey Brown's look at Milestone in the context of black comic book heroes and comic book fans ranges back to the blacksploitation era, and while it's probably not saying anything incredibly new, it is interesting to read a critical look on how the company was received, how it grew, and what that means for a more diverse media. Whether or not Milestone's values will be able to survive under DC's leadership, we'll have to wait and see.

Wait, did George R. R. Martin actually release A Dance with Dragons this year? Most of the reviews I've read were positive, but I think those were caused by relief that it was actually published, because I thought this was a noticeably mediocre installment into the series. Despite the high page count, almost nothing happens--most of it is taken up by travelling and below-average court intrigues. Maybe that's to be expected: it's a middle book, after all, and those are sometimes more about setup than resolution. But it's certainly made me a lot less interested in continuing when Martin finally finishes book #6.

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by David Aaronovitch, is another book that never quite achieves liftoff. Aaronovitch sets out to find a grand unified theory of why we create conspiracy theories, and the role they play in culture. But to do so, he drags the reader through a long series of conspiracies-as-case-studies. The result is big on history, not terribly strong on argument. Perhaps it's ironic, but I want a little bit more point-of-view and personality from my academic study of conspiracy myths.

In Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, Jane Margolis and Allen Fisher examine why, exactly, the gender imbalance in high-tech occupations emerged and persists. They trace it back along three lines: family treatment of technology, "imposter" syndrome, and a hostile male culture in computing. The last few chapters detail a program that the authors put together to try to address the problem. Since it was published in 2001, a lot of the information inside has seeped into more public awareness, but this is still a really good book on how women are turned away from tech trades, and what teachers and employers should do to reduce that effect. Speaking as someone working with a team of male and female data journalists, it's definitely a shame to lose 50% of our potential talent before the conversation even begins.

I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not really into Ian Macdonald, and The Dervish House is no exception. Macdonald's schtick is near-singularity cyberpunk set in developing countries, as if he's setting out to push Gibson's observation about the distribution of the future as far as he can. I'm glad someone's writing science fiction that's not set in the USA--this time it's Turkey--and I like the books well enough, but I don't love them. That said, Dervish House's combination of financial scams, mellified men, and virally-induced religion manages to be a fun read, jam-packed with ideas and intersecting plotlines. It's good stuff, it's just not my cup of tea.

I bought two books by South African writer Lauren Beukes recently. Zoo City is the better of the two: an urban fantasy in which criminals are inexplicably saddled with an animal familiar they have to care for. The main character, Zinzi, is a former journalist (with a sloth) who's hired for a missing persons case--a macguffin that doesn't last long. It's a noir-ish book, and an unromantic one, but I like how it edges up to Magical Realism without stepping into full-blown preciousness. Moxyland is more traditional dystopian science fiction, with the now-obligatory alternate reality game plot point. Although there are some clever touches in there--the strandbeest-like bio-art and the ebola variant used for crowd control--it's hard for me to get past the parts that borrow too heavily from contemporaneous fashions like gamification, without feeling like I'd rather just open up my RSS feeds.

Half-Made World? More like "half-written book," ba-dum-bum. Felix Gilman's bizarre pastiche reminds me a little bit of Mieville's Iron Council--it's a Western that's set... elsewhere, for lack of a better word--but in the end it just stops: either it's a setup for a sequel, or Gilman forgot how an ending is supposed to work. I like the idea of catching the ordinary people of his faux-Wild West between the Gun (representing the darkest parts of the gunslinger myth) and the Line (a malignant bureaucracy bent on manifest destiny via train), but the book is long on description and short on actual action, which I find incredible. It's like Gilman set out to write Weird Fiction in the least squeamish, visceral possible way, the point of which I can't possibly understand.

I don't know if Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology is the definitive account of L. Ron Hubbard's ponzi-scheme-turned-cult, but it's pretty good. Reitman briefly covers Hubbard's childhood, his biography (and his attempts at self-aggrandizement), and his role in the religion's founding and early growth. During the last half of the book, she turns to the modern Scientology organization, with special attention paid to Lisa McPherson, a member who died while under Scientology's care due to gross medical negligence and abuse. Reitman aims for plain-spoken objectivity throughout her telling of the organization's history, but even that is damning enough. She ends the book on an ambiguous note with a look at the next generation of Scientologists, which is something I found surprisingly refreshing. It provides a glimpse of the mundane humanity underneath one of the world's most bizarre dogmas.

May 25, 2011

Filed under: fiction»reviews»mieville

Embassytown, by China Mieville

...I dislike thinking in terms of allegory--quite a lot. I've disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.

The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading--a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.

It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about "what does the text mean?"--and I don't think text means like that. Texts do things.

I'm always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won't be deliberate.

But the point is, those riffs don't reduce. There can be perfectly legitimate political readings and perfectly legitimate metaphoric resonances, but that doesn't end the thing. That doesn't foreclose it. The text is not in control. Certainly the writer is not in control of what the text can do--but neither, really, is the text itself.

China Mieville, talking to BLDGBLOG

Reading Embassytown, it is obvious that China Mieville has been thinking deeply about metaphors and control for a long time. His first really "science fiction" book, it's a complex meditation on language and colonialism, all filtered through Cronenberg-esque body horror. And while there are scattered threads of homage (I did a double-take at the mention of Karen Traviss' aggressively vegan aliens, the Wess'har), there's no doubt that this is Mieville still writing Weird Fiction in a way nobody else can manage.

Told from the point of view of "immerser" Avice Benner Cho, Embassytown initially jumps back and forward across time, but eventually settles down into a straightforward narrative. Cho comes from a backwater colony planet that's home to aliens named the Hosts, whose Language (capitalization in the original) has some odd characteristics: it's a double-voiced vocalization (requiring specially-raised pairs of humans to speak it), and it's a direct expression of their mental state. The Hosts can't lie, because that would require them to think something impossible, but they can create new linguistic expressions via simile. Before she leaves the planet to travel across space, Cho becomes a Simile ("the girl who sat in darkness and ate what was given to her"). Years later, Cho returns with her linguist husband to visit the colony, just in time for disaster to strike in the form of the new Ambassador to the Hosts from the human empire, and a Host who is learning how to lie.

There are elements here of Dune, Snow Crash, Videodrome, and Adam Troy-Castro's Emissaries from the Dead, although they've been combined into something very different. Mieville manages to create a kind of recursive narrative--both about and functioning as metaphor. It's got something to say about colonialism, about propaganda, and about the relationship between language and policy--although, as Mieville would no doubt point out, it's not a book solely about those things. It's not a polemic.

One of Mieville's great talents is his understanding of trope and genre, which lets him quickly sketch out a scenario, such as the political relationship between Cho's home colony and the wider human civilization, while saving room for what he does best: throwing his characters across stretches of jarring, endlessly inventive territory. In this case, the Hosts' talent for biological manipulation provides a landscape that's both familiar and yet deeply alien, from living houses that grow their own furniture to transit tubes built from peristaltic flesh. Beyond the shock value, the connection between the Hosts and their technology makes the decline of their society graphically manifest, as buildings and tools bleed and weep in desparation.

For all of its immense thoughtfulness, and despite its achingly-rendered arc of destruction, I wish Embassytown were better in a few key areas. Cho is a passive observer for much of its length, and the fractured timeline during the first half of the story seems more like a gratuitous method of disorienting the reader than a useful narrative device. I also wish, for a story that resonates so strongly around the legacy of colonialism, that the ending felt a little less like What These People Need Is a Honky.

For the Mieville fan, what stands out the most is the lack of pulp. In the last three books, he's changed his writing styles and tone significantly for each book, but there's always been a lurid quality to them, as though channeling the fevered grotesqueries of an Amazing Stories cover painting. While the body-horror elements persist, along with his obvious love of language, it's only in a short sequence describing a warp-travel accident that Mieville lets his pulp roots free--otherwise, it's a relatively restrained performance, which may be better for this particular story, but I do miss the sheer excess of previous novels.

March 9, 2011

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: End of History Edition

It occurs to me that it would be a lot easier to do these six-month roundups of whatever wanders across my Kindle--not to mention dig into the data of how much I'm reading and how quickly--if Amazon would open up the data to me. I'm sure they're collecting the information, since they have features like "Most Highlighted" for their whole Kindle userbase (invariably, it's something horrible like The Last Symbol). Just a big CSV or XML dump would be fine. Think of all the graphing I could do! Scatter plots! Histograms!

Anyway.

The Passage got a lot of good press, from both mainstream and speculative fiction outlets, and I'm entirely unclear why. Justin Theroux's book is basically The Stand with vampires, except it's not nearly as much fun. I forced my way through it, and what I remember now is that the concept was silly, the writing was clunky, and the attempt at psychological motivation dropped like a lead bar. It's bad enough that Stephen King often feels like rewriting his own books without other people trying and failing.

Joe Abercrombie has clearly staked a claim on a corner of grim fantasy, which helpful if you like that kind of thing, but in his most recent book it starts to verge on shtick. As opposed to his First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold, The Heroes covers a tight span of about a week on a single battlefield between his faux-British and faux-Norse nations. Past characters make an appearance, often in ways that redefine them or expand on them in interesting ways. It's a page-turner. But... seriously, Joe? A little non-locomotive light at the end of the tunnel wouldn't kill you.

I have been making some effort to try to read more science fiction by people of color lately, which led me to Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson. It's okay, but not great. It's an entry into one of the new schools of fantasy--the anti-Weird fiction one, where the world-building becomes less rigorous and more fairy-tale like--which is not really my cup of tea anyway. Nice to read something that's not based on yet another Fantasy England/Fantasy Norway, though.

The first book in Ruth Downie's series of Anglo-roman medical mysteries, Medicus, was free on Kindle the other day, and the second (Terra Incognita) was only a buck. So it was easy to pick up those two and, after finishing the first, take a chance on the full-priced third book. Downie is honest about the varying degrees of (in)accuracy in her historical depiction, but that doesn't stop them from being entertaining little puzzlers, and a neat twist on the mystery genre. I really like the characterization, although the relationship between the protagonists is odd, to say the least (slave ownership is involved). I can't decide if Downie knows how discomfiting this is, and is exploiting the tension it raises for modern readers, or if it's just supposed to be a plot device.

N.K. Jemisin has followed up on last year's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms with The Broken Kingdoms. They're largely unrelated stories, although the second does follow on the events of the first. She's expanded on the cosmology in interesting ways (gods that sell their blood as a drug, churches that think they know better than their deities). That said, I think part of the difficulty with books like these is that they're vulnerable to a lot of deus ex machina (not that Jemisin does so, but you're constantly worried that she might), and it tends to rob the main characters of agency because the institutions above them are so omnipotent. But then, that's probably the point.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is really less of a novel than a collection of linked short stories. Author Jonathan L. Howard retells a variant on the old Faust story: Cabal sells his soul for the secrets of necromancy, and then, years later, tries to win it back in a bet: if he can persuade one hundred others to give up their own souls, Cabal will go free. And so, of course, he opens a traveling carnival. This is a surprisingly funny book, with the main character as a grimly humorless straight man struggling against his own bad nature. It's also easy to read in small bites, which makes it natural Metro fodder.

I'm just about done with both steampunk and zombies, personally, so I'm surprised that I enjoyed Cherie Priest's Dreadnought despite a heavy handful of both. I think it's better than her previous attempt at combining the two, Boneshaker, for what that's worth. The characterization is more interesting, it feels less frantic, and there's some interesting attempts to address the revisionism that pops up in some alternate history. That said, it's still a steampunk book with zombies in it. It's not subtle, is what I'm trying to get across here.

Chris Braak started off strong with the Weird Fiction novel The Translated Man. His follow-up, Mr. Stitch, has a lot of fine moments, but the central mystery is a let-down--I saw it coming from a mile away, and I'm pretty sure you will too. That said, Braak's books are (for some reason) relatively cheap on Kindle, clocking in $9 for the pair. At a time when most of the genre seems to be blending back into either urban fantasy or steampunk, it's good to see someone messing with the gothic without forgetting to write an actual story.

I read relatively little non-fiction over the past half-year, for some reason, but I did finally get around to Matt Taibbi's Griftopia, prompted by his fantastic reporting on the fallout of the economic crisis. It's got a lot of original material, particularly on the trend of public functions being sold to private companies at a ridiculous cost, and it does include his now-infamous "vampire squid blood funnel" piece on Goldman Sachs. But I can't help but feel like it should have hit harder. When I read something like his piece on Florida's bankruptcy courts, there's a rawness to it that I think is missing from the novel-length argument.

The other big non-fiction title I read was Jay-Z's biography-slash-guide to the art of writing rap, Decoded (ghost-written, apparently, with hip-hop critic dream hampton). It's a bit of a mess: rambling from topic to topic, repetitive in parts, aggressively designed (which does not play well in the Kindle version). In these things, it's not unlike Jay-Z's musical output. But Decoded is also sharp and readable, and when it's hitting on all cylinders (particularly in its footnoted lyric sections, which explain the hyper-compressed imagery of each line), it's a great entry point for learning to read and contextualize hip-hop.

Finally, for an online discussion group I read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. As Sherlock Holmes fan-fiction goes, it's not bad. There were some very funny moments, some intriguing historical tidbits, and a number of reminders that I am very happy not to live in the Middle Ages.

So that's this year's first set of e-book notes. Lots of fantasy and alternate history, even though I could have sworn that's exactly what I wasn't in the mood to read. If my list of samples is any indication, the next six months will be much more non-fiction heavy, but that's before taking into consideration the new Mieville, Richard K. Morgan, and and Scott Lynch books due by the end of 2011. Either way, looks like a good year for reading.

November 11, 2010

Filed under: fiction»reviews»banks_iain

Surface Detail

Surface Detail is not the worst Culture novel that Iain Banks has written--that dubious honor is reserved for Excession, which meandered through an underwhelming tour of AI politics--but it's pretty close, and for many of the same reasons. I suspect it's a problem of scale: Banks writes fantastic micro-level scheming in both his science fiction and "literary" books, but he seems to lose the thread when he tries to translate that into galactic-level politics, especially for a civilization as ridiculously over-powered as the Culture. As a result, both Excession and this most recent book suffer from a chronic lack of action, and the characters aren't given enough urgency to make up the difference.

But at least this time it's better assembled, without Excession's random plotting and character introductions. Surface Detail's A-plot concerns an indentured slave named Lededje, who's killed by her owner during an escape attempt only to wake up again aboard a Culture ship light-years away. Understandably, Lededje wants revenge--something which, for obvious reasons, her rescuers frown upon. It's a nice way of introducing another shade of grey to the Culture's supposedly-benevolent interference in other civilizations: because Lededje's killer is powerful and wealthy within his society, the Culture won't help bring him to justice, because that would cause an unpredictable shakeup of the planetary order. At the very least they need a good excuse, even if they have to make one themselves--hence the scheming, courtesy of the famed Special Circumstances department.

Banks wraps Lededje's journey with a secondary, loosely-connected plotline regarding virtual Hells: the dark side of the Singularity's "nerd rapture," they're the result of mind-state digitization technology in the hands of religious zealots. Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of VR programs dedicated to eternal torment. The pro- and anti-Hell sides decide to contest their fate by holding a virtual war (the Culture is anti-Hell, of course, but abstains from the conflict for some reason). So on one hand, the book follows a soldier named Vatueil, who's fighting (he thinks) for the anti-Hell side. On the other, it watches a journalist who became trapped in one of the Hells during an undercover investigation, and ends up exploring more of their nature than she expected.

These virtual segments give Banks a place to stretch out and indulge himself: his "war over Hell" takes place in simulated scenarios ranging from creatures living the core of a gas giant to Bolo-like sentient tanks. Likewise, his Hell is a nasty piece of gothic engineering, all torture and despair. Whenever he dips into virtuality, it's always a surprise. Unfortunately, it's also too vaguely described to get an idea of the stakes or what victory means in any given scenario, and it tends to kill the novel's momentum.

So that's the general idea of Surface Detail: 600+ pages of people struggling along in increasingly clever but implausible virtual environments, and Lededje slowly making her way back to her home planet for an all-too-short vengeance. It's a funny book in parts, an imaginative book in others, but not an eventful (or ultimately, satisfying) book. And in a setting as generous as the Culture, that's a tremendous shame.

Maybe it's impossible to do real societal intrigue and plotting in a Culture book. Previous books treated the highest levels of Special Circumstances almost as distant and meddlesome gods: the inscrutable missions assigned in Use of Weapons, devastating near-genocide in Look to Windward, and (most brilliantly) the manipulative, nested strategems in Player of Games. Attempting to give readers too much insight into the Minds running the Culture seems to either undercut the omniscience Banks grants them, or it leaves the main characters entirely powerless, or both. There needs to be a delicate balance between deus and machina--in Surface Detail, he unfortunately doesn't have the mix quite right.

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