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.
In her review of Embassytown, Ursula Le Guin makes a lovely point about the genre and its critics:
Some authors fill a novel with futuristic scenery and jargon and then strenuously, even stertorously, deny that it's science fiction. No, no, they don't write that nasty stuff, never touch it. They write literature. Though curiously familiar with the tropes and conventions of the despised genre, they so blithely ignore the meaning of terms, they reinvent the wheel with such cries of self-admiration, that their endeavours seem a doomed effort to prove that one can write a novel without learning how. ... Only the trash forms of science fiction are undemanding and predictable; the good stuff, like all good fiction, is not for lazy minds. Where the complexity of realistic novels is moral and psychological, in science fiction it's moral and intellectual; individual character is seldom the key.To put it another way, good science fiction is often sociological literature, as opposed to psychological. It is, as the argument goes, more about the concerns of the present than about any predicted future. And as Mieville himself has written, it lends itself to radical political thinking precisely because it jettisons the most basic bounds of possibility. That's a powerful tool, as Sam Thompson's review in the London Review of Books explains.
Lately I've been wondering if, after the genre gets over its twin infatuation with steampunk and the undead, we're due for another round of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. There's certainly cause for it--global warming, outbreaks of E. coli and bird-flu, and of course, worries over peak oil. The last is something I find particularly intriguing. Could we call it "peak everything?"
Peak oil, of course, is the theory that A) there's a limited amount of petroleum that can be extracted from the earth within our current geological span of existence, and B) we will soon pass, or have already passed, the point where we have extracted all the easy-to-find oil. That means it'll be increasingly expensive to run a petroleum economy--possibly too expensive. We'll have to find alternatives, or suffer serious political and economic consequences.
Peak everything, by extension, would be based on the idea that oil isn't the only exhaustible resource on which our industrialized society is based. Modern electronics are manufactured using a variety of rare materials like coltan, and they aren't inexhaustible (not to mention that they're mined from conflict areas, making their supply prone to disruption). The plastics used in packaging and components are petroleum-based. And some things that are technically renewable, like oil, might turn out to be refreshed at a rate so slow as to be non-renewable. In response, we'd have to drastically change our manufacturing and consumption, which would ripple through unpredictable parts of society: our labor economies, our politics, our communications, and our urban planning, just for a start.
Whether or not this is scientifically feasible, I don't know. It's largely irrelevant anyway, given the genre's loose relationship to its namesake discipline. Charlie Stross, for example, has written regularly about the impossibility of certain genre tropes--this post on the impracticality of interplanetary travel is a great example. Let's not even get started on things like telepathy, artificial intelligence, or functional libertarian governments. Eco-fiction, like other genre settings, is a tool for exploring more than just scientific theory.
But even if we don't see "peak everything" as a subgenre on the rise, I've enjoyed thinking about it this week when reflecting on my own life. After all, how much of a typical American lifestyle could be maintained if we imposed a strict renewables-only requirement? Would we see more bespoke manufacturing, more user-serviceable parts encased in renewable materials like wood and bone? Would we learn to value beautiful patterns of wear over shiny newness?
Despite what seems like obvious potential, I've only read one novel recently that really played with the idea of rampant resource depletion: Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi sets the book in Thailand after the oceans rise and the oil economy runs down: coiled springs are revived as the main method of energy storage, and biotech is used as an imperfect replacement for now-defunct technology. I wouldn't say that The Windup Girl was one of my favorite books this year--it drags a bit, and some of its characterization is patchy--but I loved its willingness to interrogate contemporary economic breakdown without simply veering abruptly into Mad Max caricature. For a genre where "anything's possible," that kind of clarity is a bit too rare--and all too necessary.
...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.
While I re-read Dune once every couple years, I realized while we were on vacation that there's another favorite sci-fi novel that I haven't read in forever: Snow Crash. Due to reprints issued when Neal Stephenson hit the Baroque Cycle lottery, you can't get a new copy of Snow Crash for less than $10 ($13 for the trade paperback), which I regard as highway robbery, but a used bookstore in Seattle had it for $7, and I quickly found myself buried in it again.
Given that I've hated everything that Stephenson's done since this book, I was frankly worried that it would turn out to be another case of memories tinted by nostalgia, but Snow Crash is actually still pretty good. In fact, I think it's probably still the best thing he's written, and one of the better books of the 90's.
What did Stephenson get right with Snow Crash that he hasn't managed since?
There's an old saying that good science fiction contains one big crazy idea--any more, and it detracts from the story, as the writer struggles to fit in story and readers try to keep up. Snow Crash is the glorious exception to that rule. It's just stuffed with great throwaway ideas and scenes: the Rat Things, Raft Pirates, smart-wheeled skateboards, a kayak-riding killer wielding micron-thick glass knives... Despite being satire, and wild satire at that, a lot of the ideas in Snow Crash are remarkably prescient (especially if you give it a little Nostradamus-like leeway): most notably Google Earth, but its depiction of Internet culture and tribalism is pretty dead-on. Its prediction of network consolidation (via phone companies and cable networks) to form a globe-spanning computer network is not that far off. A gargoyle is just a smartphone user without the fancy goggles. And of course, there's that line about globalization:
When it gets down to it-talking trade balances here-once we've brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they're making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here--once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel--once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity--y'know what? There's only four things we do better than anyone else:...which sometimes these days sounds about right.
high-speed pizza delivery
And yet, most impressive of all, it doesn't feel particularly cluttered. It feels fast. Stephenson charges through the story at a tremendous clip. It is, and I mean this in the best possible sense, cyberpunk by way of Michael Bay. Yes, the ending is still terrible. Yes, it still spends too much time rehashing ancient Sumerian myths. True, the toilet paper memo is really only funny the first time. But none of that honestly matters in the end. After the final page, what you remember are the explosions.
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!
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.
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.
Zero History, by William Gibson
As with any author, I have favorite William Gibson titles, as well as books I've enjoyed but never felt a need to revisit. Zero History, however, is the first Gibson novel I've found myself actively disliking for most of its length.
The third part of a loose trilogy by an author who seems to write trilogies by accident as much as anything else, Zero History follows relatively close on the heels of 2007's Spook Country. It centers on Hollis Henry, ex-rock singer and freelance journalist, and an ex-junkie named Milgrim, both of whom are recruited by eccentric PR tycoon Hubertus Bigend to locate an underground clothing designer (known only as the "Gabriel Hounds"). Bigend wants to do this for several reasons, partly because he's envious of their vague and trendy marketing strategy, but mostly because he wants to get into the business of designing military uniforms for the US, and he'd like the Hounds to do it for him.
In the right hands, this plotline is the material for a dark farce, but Gibson insists on writing it straight-faced. Worse, he spends most of the book stalled out in endless circular conversations. Over and over, it seems, Hollis and/or Milgrim meet with a possible lead on the enigmatic designer, fail to make any progress, and return to Bigend to give him the bad news and receive a new assignment. Lather, rinse, repeat, until finally Gibson seems to realize that he's gone 250 pages without any real action and kicks off an admittedly exciting hostage exchange, one involving flying drones, a prisoner exchange, and ubiquitous surveillance. Even then, it's peculiarly passive--viewed primarily through remote cameras--and is only the top layer of a market manipulation scheme that is described as monumentally important, but never explained or detailed.
These are not, granted, new criticisms for Gibson. He's never been able to write a convincing ending (the book's closing connection to Pattern Recognition is at best unjustifiable, and at worst entirely gratuitous), he likes his Macguffins elusive, and he often leaves the real plot events (not to mention their resolution, such as it is) in the background, while his protagonists toil over some small part of the greater plan. Unlike his past books, however, Zero History can't quite achieve escape velocity, perhaps because the stakes are so low, and the characters so slightly motivated. Why should we care whether or not a rich Belgian ad agency can find someone to make fashionable army pants? Especially when the agency is run by someone as aggressively bland as Bigend, whose only role is to fund the plotline for arbitrary reasons, and whose "eccentric" personality is limited to wearing obnoxiously-colored suits?
Over the entire trilogy, but particularly in Zero History, Gibson has joined the ranks of science fiction authors (see also: Doctorow and Sterling) who seem to believe that the world has become sufficiently weird that merely documenting it qualifies as genre fiction. This shift from sci-fi to techno-thriller is not kind to Gibson's style of writing, which has always been evocative rather than technically-detailed. In this new subgenre--blog-punk? tweet noir?--authors have traded in their worldbuilding for exhaustive trivia. All this real-world gadgetry has to be explained and infodumped to establish its real-world credibility, turning these novels into little more than collections of nerdy ephemera. For me, they become a distracting game of "guess the source" (a little John Robb here, a little Wired Magazine there, perhaps), constantly jerking me out of the narrative.
Besides, maybe it's just me and my particular pet peeves, but there's a lot here that seems tuned to the wavelength of the modern techno-hipster: a precious preoccupation with design, an exhaustive catalog of name brands, and a steady stream of shiny objects that reads like a random selection from BoingBoing or Valleywag (quadcopter drones, the OpenMoko Neo, steampunk hotels). Everyone has an iPhone, which they're constantly stroking or pinching or otherwise fondling via a near-sexual verb choice. Twitter features prominently. All it needs to complete the stereotype is a pair of skinny jeans and a bad haircut. This is a disappointingly mundane turn from the author who first envisioned the vast neon vistas and chrome origami of Neuromancer's cyberspace.
Zero History carries a lot of thematic similarities to another Gibson trilogy-ender, All Tomorrow's Parties, in that both try to describe some kind of grand paradigm shift between the real and the virtual. But in the latter, the protagonists were blessed with data-crunching abilities verging on magical realism, and a real technological transition (toward nanotech production) was taking place. Here, when side characters suddenly begin vaguely describing Bigend's marketing firm as "about to become exponentially bigger" during the book's climax, it comes across as a crutch--an author who doesn't know how to raise the stakes except by telling the audience that they're higher.
It's not all bad, I guess. Gibson still has a deft hand with dialog, and he has a few great characters up his sleeve, like Hollis's perpetually furious ex-drummer Heidi (unlike many of his colleagues, Gibson can pass a Bechdel test) and a surly, profane Eastern European computer repairman. The writing is less stylized, but also less distracting than Spook Country, where almost every chapter ended with a choppy, zen-like pronouncement. And when his eye for detail works, like the descriptions of a secret hotel in London, it's as gorgeous as ever.
Kraken, by China Mieville
Kraken, in contrast, is a playful throwback for China Mieville, returning to the kind of politically-aware, Gaiman-esque urban fantasy that he first wrote in King Rat and later indulged in his YA novel, Un Lun Dun. Since then, Mieville's been overdue for something less grim than his usual fare, and the result is a big, fun shaggy dog story. It's filled with dubious sorcery, religion collectors, and LOLspeak. Also, it's about the end of the world, in a way. Mieville treats apocalypses something like a grade-schooler's birthday party: what if two of them were thrown on the same day? Which one gets attended, and which gets left with a lot of uneaten ice cream cake?
So here's a biologist named Billy Harrow, whose career highlight to date is having preserved a giant squid specimen for the London Natural History Museum. Billy goes in to work one day, only to find that the squid has been neatly stolen from its tank, without a single clue left behind, and Billy's being investigated by the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit. In short order, he's pulled into a mess of competing conspiracies, including a group of devout kraken worshippers and (in a kind of reverse-Yakuza twist) a vicious mobster tattoo.
Mieville likes to play with genre, and urban fantasy is basically defined by its tension between belief systems--namely, the mundane world and the secret history. This is, of course, inherently ridiculous: you can barely go three pages without a violation of natural law in the average Dresden Files book--they're more like natural suggestions at that point--so urban fantasy simply replaces the old rules with a new set of extra special rules, which exist as "reality" until the author amends them to get around a difficult plot point. Kraken, as Mieville tends to do, stages a sly critique of this dynamic via excess: all the secret histories get a chance at the table--all of them that he can think of, that is, and that's quite a few, ranging from bizarre cults to television shows--but that doesn't mean they all get to be the history:
Vardy swung back his chair and looked at her with some queasy combine of dislike, admiration and curiousity. "Really? That's what it stems from, is it? You've got it all sorted out, have you? Faith is stupidity, is it?"
Collingswood cocked her head. Are you talking to me like that, bro? She couldn't read his head-texts, of course, not those of a specialist like Vardy.
"Oh believe me, I know the story," he said. "It's a crutch, isn't it? It's a fairy tale. For the weak. It's stupidity. See, that's why you'll never bloody be good enough for this job, Collingswood." He waited as if he'd said too much, but she waved her hand, Oh do please carry the fuck on. "Whether you agree with the bloody predicates or not, Constable Collingswood, you should consider the possibility that faith might be a way of thinking more rigorously than the woolly bullshit of most atheists. It's not an intellectual mistake." He tapped his forehead. "It's a way of thinking about all sorts of other things, as well as itself. The Virgin birth's a way of thinking about women and about love. The ark is a far more bloody logical way of thinking about the question of animal husbandry than the delightful ad hoc thuggery we've instituted. Creationism's a way of thinking I am not worthless at a time when people were being told and shown they were. You want to get angry about that bloody admirable humanist doctrine, and why would you want to blame Clinton. But you're not just too young, you're too bloody ignorant to know about welfare reform."
They stared at each other. It was tense, and weirdly slightly funny.
"Yeah but," Collingswood said cautiously. "Only, it's not totally admirable, is it, given that it's total fucking bollocks."
They stared some more.
"Well," Vardy said. "That is true. I would have to concede that, unfortunately." Neither of them laughed, but they could have done.
And that's your argument for rationalism, by way of a book about squid gods. Honestly, with the playing field wide open like this, Kraken gets a little overstuffed at times. Mieville's clearly enjoying himself, stewing together all the ideas and pop cultural references he no doubt couldn't use in either Bas-Lag or The City and the City, but there are a few times toward the end when the double-crosses and twists become more exhausting than confusing.
But hey: it's about time that someone tried to bring some intelligence to a sub-genre that's the pulp of our age, isn't it? When the bookshelves are groaning under the weight of mopey vampires, brooding werewolves, and the sexy men and women who love/kill them, isn't it nice that someone can step in, say "well, this is a bit ridiculous, so let's see how far it can go?" If it sometimes wanders on its way up to 11, maybe it abuses the italics a little bit and has more fun with squid puns than is strictly necessary... well, speaking personally, that's a price I'm willing to pay.
It's been a little over six months since the last time I looked over my Kindle reading list. During that time, Amazon and the publishing industry got into an enormous brawl, books were pulled, books were restored at higher prices, and as a result my reading habits may have slowed a little. I've glanced from time to time at other reading hardware, I've used my phone to run through a few titles from Feedbooks, but the e-ink and the selection on the Kindle are still a powerful combination. It's still, for now, my favorite way to read.
So here's the highlights:
Joe Abercrombie gets shelved under "fantasy" but it's hard to imagine anything less like the pastel-colored glow of the typical genre entry. His influences are more in line with Fritz Leiber and Steven Brust, possibly crossed with Terry Pratchett's gift for writing characters who are both sympathetic and completely oblivious. I started with Best Served Cold, a Seven Samurai-like revenge plot that spirals unpredictably into darker territory with every step, and somewhat later worked my way through the First Law trilogy, which is somewhat more epic. These are not cheerful books--their main characters include a berzerker, a torturer, and a woman who swears vengeance after being thrown off a mountain--but they've got depth and humor, characters who can (and often do) choose badly with realistic consequences, and not an elf in sight. It's a refreshing combination.
At the other end of the meta-genre viciousness spectrum is Lev Grossman's The Magicians, a thinly-veiled critique of both Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. Grossman's protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, heads off to a secret magical academy, spurred by his love for a Narnia-like children's series named "Fillory and Further." Yet the magic turns out to be decidedly un-magical, graduation leaves him mired in ennui and boredom, and Quentin himself is not particularly talented or admirable. In many ways, it's a book about how badly the unexamined expectations of magical thinking have primed Grossman's characters for adult life, and the difficulty of learning to accept a difficult and ambiguous reality. And yet, while I appreciated the book's psychological perspective, something about it still rubbed me the wrong way--which is probably the point, honestly.
Ian MacDonald's River of Gods has come highly-recommended, and it's easy to see why: set in a near-future India where the new stars of Bollywood are entirely virtual and AI is illegal, it's a complicated mess of intertwining plotlines strongly reminiscent of early William Gibson. And if it's not completely coherent, or if it telegraphs its surprises a bit early, it does so with enough constant momentum that it's not completely jarring. I like MacDonald's globalized perspective, too--it's nice to read a sci-fi book where the protagonists aren't all white people from LA--and if I didn't rush out and download the rest of his catalog, I've certainly flagged it as promising.
I read Everyman, by Philip Roth, for the PEN/Faulkner book series this year (it was an award winner in 2006, I believe). I'd be very curious as to the other books up for the award that year, because this is awful. It's as if someone decided to write a terrible parody of a Philip Roth novel--in which a vain, sexually-obsessed, self-hating Jew obsesses over a list of endless sickness, both real and imagined--and then, to add insult to injury, got Roth himself to write it.
The problem with describing The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad, by Minister Faust, is that it invariably sounds a lot more fun than it actually is. I mean, this is a book about a part-psychic graduate student and dishwasher who's swept up in an intergalactic drug operation with his mad scientist roommate, and in which each character gets introduced via a D&D-style character sheet. Shades of Buckaroo Banzai, it's certainly got style to spare, but some of the stylistic tics edge toward reader-hostile mania: several chapters (each of which is in first-person dialect) are nigh-unreadable, the plot is unclear, and parts of it meander interminably in between enormous dumps of exposition. You could charitably call it "uneven," but I have to say it didn't leave me feeling particularly charitable. Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds has a similar problem: psychic Nazi experiments vs. British occult blood magic? Sounds awesome, almost completely fails to deliver.
Horns is a kind of surreal detective novel, I guess. It's about a man who wakes up one day with devil horns growing out of his head, and anyone who sees them starts telling him their deepest secrets, a kind of ambiguous "gift" that he tries to use to uncover the truth behind his ex-girlfriend's murder. Author Joe Hill gradually lets the horns expose all kinds of queasy awfulness in the ways that people hide their real feelings from each other--and from themselves--in a small town. But does it work as a story? I'm not sure. At some point, earlier than expected, the murder gets resolved, and it becomes more of a slowly-paced thriller. Still, Hill wraps things up nicely without sugar-coating his characters, and if the horns aren't ever exactly explained... well, maybe we shouldn't want the secrets behind everything after all.
On the non-fiction front, Sarah Ellison's The War at the Wall Street Journal has garnered rave reviews from Slate and the Columbia Journalism Review, so my expectations may have been too high going in. I expected more details of how Newscorp's acquisition has changed one of the country's most prestigious papers for the worse. And I got some of that, eventually, after endless chapters of internal politics in the Journal's former owners, the Bancroft family. It takes 2/3 of the book to get to any details of the paper's changing newsroom, and then it proves disappointingly light on dirt (or, for that matter, outrage). This is, in other words, pretty much the book you'd expect from a former WSJ business reporter on the acquisition--but I don't think I'll be alone in saying I hoped for more.
Finally, N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: the child of an estranged royal heir is called back to the capitol, where the tyrannical rulers of, yes, a hundred thousand kingdoms hold onto power by keeping their ex-gods as slaves. In its focus on politics and control, not to mention the shackled djinn-like servants, Jemisin's debut reminds me of Daniel Abraham's "Long Price" books in the best possible way. It's also got a lovely use of narrative voice from an African-American author who doesn't shy away from racial diversity in her worldbuilding. Perhaps the ending is a bit deus ex machina, but I think it's earned. My understanding is that there's a follow-up on the way, and I'm eager to see where Jemisin will try to go from here.
So the publishers are moving the e-book industry to the so-called agency model. I resent having to care about this, but since I own a Kindle and the new model will boost the price of digital "hardcovers" by at least a couple of bucks, I feel like I've been dragged into it.
The argument for agency pricing (in which the publishers, and not the retailers, set the prices for their books) primarily concerns preserving the premium for new releases. This premium, and not production costs, is why hardcovers are traditionally priced so much higher than paperbacks (they don't actually cost much more to produce). It's a kind of early adopter tax on avid readers, and the extra profits on bestselling hardbacks go to subsidize all the other books, most of which lose money. The irony is that under agency pricing, publishers are actually making less money in the short term, because they're not getting as much as they were when Amazon was selling titles at a loss.
Customers have been promised that this will all work out better for them in the end, because agency pricing also means that publishers can drop the price of older e-books, similar to the way paperbacks work, instead of keeping them all at a uniform $10. Amazon was also supposed to work this way, and I believe it sometimes did, but I'm not really sure when the change was supposed to happen, and often e-books didn't drop in price when the paperback version hit shelves. That said, I think a lot of people are distrustful that the older book discount is actually going to happen, and with good reason: publishers have historically looked at e-book markets as an opportunity to gouge readers, and it's not at all clear that they won't continue to do so.
Take, for example, Karin Lowachee's Warchild. I started looking at Lowachee's books after her newest, The Gaslight Dogs, got a favorable review on Tor.com last week. Warchild is the first of a three-part series, and was originally written in April of 2002, making it more than eight years old now. Hachette, the publisher, wants readers to pay $11--more than many "brand-new" e-books!--to download it. No doubt they considers this fair: Hachette offers Lowachee's books in a $22(!) mass market paperback format, making the e-book a 50% discount. From their perspective, maybe that seems like a good deal. But to the average reader, that's insane. There's no way I'm going to pay $11 for a pulp sci-fi book that's almost a decade old, any more than I'd pay more than $20 for it on cheap paper. Those are the kinds of prices that send me running to the used bookstore or the library--and then Hachette (and more importantly, Lowachee) gets nothing.
Which pains me, because I like giving money to authors. That's one of my favorite parts of the e-book market: I can give my money to authors without feeling guilty about destroying countless trees for books that I'll read once and never touch again. I buy a lot of books--many more, in fact, now that eco-guilt is out of the equation. And given time to adjust, as I've said, I don't see a real problem with paying a bit more for a just-published e-book. To give one example: although Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds will set me back $13, it sounds like a neat book and I don't want to wait for a paperback, so going over the $10 Amazon price point isn't the worst thing in the world. On the other hand, if it costs that much 8 years from now, I'll be considerably less sanguine about it.
I don't know that much about publishing models, so I'm not going to lecture about the costs of production and all that--I'm told those are minimal anyway--but nothing's going to kill consumer interest in e-books faster than a pricing scheme that regularly makes them more expensive than their paper equivalents. And if publishers wonder why people tend to eye them with distrust when they insist that they'll price older titles fairly, they should probably take another glance through their own back catalogs.
At some level this is a conversation about what kind of book market we want to have, and what it's possible to preserve. The existing publishing system is not at all set up for profitability. It leverages blockbuster titles to pay for the writing and editing of a diverse range of smaller, less popular books. I may find Dan Brown and JK Rowling personally repugnant, but their omnipresence makes possible the publication of obscure personal favorites like, say, Joseph Schloss's Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York.
Assume that we agree, as a society, that diversity of publication is a good thing. Does the agency model preserve it, or does it simply allow an inefficient system to perpetuate itself digitally? More to the point, does the move to cheaper digital pricing necessarily mean margins too thin for niche books to exist? Or is it possible for independent writers and publishers to leverage the new platform? Is the desired model that of the music industry, the movie studios, or something else entirely (Netflix and subscription services, maybe)?
I don't have pat answers for those questions, but I hope they figure it out soon. I'm getting exhausted by the rollercoaster up-and-down of the debate, and I can't be the only one. It'd be nice if they got this sorted out before they alienate the Americans who still read, but given the print industry's general track record, we probably shouldn't get our hopes up.