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March 4, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Long Now Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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