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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!


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.

September 8, 2010

Filed under: fiction»reviews

Spilled Ink

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.

June 16, 2010

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Grim Edition

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.

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