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November 17, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Steam-Powered Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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