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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.

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.

October 6, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»banks_iain

Matter in Transition

In an interview I read a while back, Iain Banks said he'd be releasing his literary fiction under "Iain M. Banks" in the US, because the middle initialed-name (which he normally uses for his science fiction) sells better here. The first book published this way is Transition. What he doesn't add is that it's been a long time since Banks's work has been sold here at all, regardless of genre. That fact only really started to change with the publication of his previous book, Matter, and Orbit's subsequent reissues of his older titles.

I don't remember ever discussing Matter at length here, but it serves as a useful contrast with Transition, and not just because they're ostensibly different genres (Transition has a lot of sci-fi elements, but uses them very lightly). They're also vastly different in scale and technique, representing the two poles of Banks's work.

The seventh Culture novel, Matter's primary theme is interference and intervention by outside powers. It concerns members of the royal family in a medieval society surrounded by far more intelligent aliens, including the Culture. When the kingdom is manipulated into civil war, the family's dim oldest prince has to go on the run, aided by his sister, who left the planet as a child to become a Culture agent. Along the way, Banks visits a typically-diverse cast of hyper-paranoid spies, eccentric drones, and nearly incomprehensible alien societies. The characterization is also superb--Prince Ferbin is either hilariously unaware or scornful of the opportunities that the galaxy has to offer, while his servant Choubris becomes increasingly independent as he sees a society beyond their feudalistic home, eventually inverting their relationship entirely.

A lot of people seem to have found Matter to be dense and a bit depressing, but it's actually one of my favorite books from the Culture set. Part of the joy of the series is the enthusiasm that Banks shows for huge ideas and massive pyrotechnics: there's no particular reason that the climax of the book has to take place in the den of the enormous alien creature living at the core of an artificial shellworld, but it's a lot of fun. That goes for the book's philosophy as well--the Culture is itself one of the those big, unrealistic ideas (it's a technocratic, post-scarcity socialist utopia run by AIs), as is Matter's flirtation with intergalactic interventionism. Banks delights in setting up his ideals, then finding ways to knock holes in them, as with the Culture's euphemistically-named spy division Special Circumstances, or Matter's ultimately ambivalent parallels to neo-conservative foreign policy.

Transition, on the other hand, is much lighter fare. It's told from multiple perspectives, some of which are not identified by name until late in the text. Most of the time is spent with four characters: a reluctant assassin, a torturer known as "The Philosopher," an ambitious young hedge fund manager, and a hospital patient recovering from amnesia. The story spans parallel universes, as several characters are members of a secret society able to hop between possible realities using a drug called "septus," which deposits them in the bodies of people at their destination.

The "transition" of the title thus refers partly to the process of moving from world to world. But it's also a reference to the primary theme of the book, which is the struggle between progress and stasis, as The Concern (the secret society controlling access to septus) teeters between one faction that would preserve the status quo (including giving immortality to members of its ruling council) and another in favor of actively encouraging diversity of thought and outcome across worlds.

Where Matter spent a lot of time in the grey areas of its theme, Transition is far more straightforward. The challenge in reading it comes more from deciphering how the various perspectives fit together, particularly the hospital patient, who may or may not be the same as one of the other characters. It reminded me strongly of The Bridge, one of Banks's earliest books, which also experimented with mixing different voices, perspectives, and shifts in genre. This is skillful and playful writing, but it doesn't stick with me the way that Matter does.

But this is all nitpicking: they're both great books, and I'm thrilled that they're being sold here, middle initial or no. They're not the titles I'd pick as an intro to Banks (that'd be Player of Games on the Culture side, and either Whit or The Bridge from the literary fiction), but they're solid works from a mature and interesting writer. Both come highly recommended.

June 29, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: No Hero Edition

I'm not sure what the cause has been--lower margins on hardware, higher-than-expected bandwidth costs, simple greed--but Amazon has stealthily raised the prices at which they introduce books to the Kindle store. A lot of the new releases that I'd like to be reading (The Bloggers on the Bus, for example, or In the Land of Invented Languages) are priced at around $14. This still puts them at roughly $3 cheaper than Amazon's price for the printed version (plus shipping or Prime membership), but it's a $4 increase over the bestseller pricing at the device's introduction.

Although I should probably get over it--I didn't buy the Kindle for the discounts, after all--I have trouble bringing myself to pay the new, higher prices. As a result, it can be difficult sometimes to find new books to read. For all that Amazon's done, including the essential sample functionality, the Kindle store is still not always a great way to browse for new books--the recommendations are often titles that I've already read, or that I would never read (Laurell K. Hamilton, for example, less for the romance and more because vampires give me the willies). What I often end up doing is going to a physical bookstore, wandering the shelves, and taking pictures of books I want to download later. This is not exactly efficient.

In any case, here are some quick takes on my reading for the last couple months:

Charlie Huston's The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death wins the prize for longest title in this batch, I think. It falls neatly into the modern detective caper genre, where the protagonist is less a highly-capable PI solving a case and more a sad-sack just trying to extricate him- or herself from a series of unfortunate coincidences. Huston's book centers on Webster Goodhue, an ex-teacher who self-destructs after a bus accident, and gradually hauls himself out of depression via work in the field of crime-scene cleanup. As pulp goes, Mystic Arts is pretty good: the dialog is snappy, the plot wanders unpredictably, and everything is wrapped up neatly at the end. If I had to criticize, I'd say that the romantic plot thread seems a bit strained, but that's picking nits, really.

While Huston's book is a good example of modern pulp/noir, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a throwback to more classic thrillers. The last book written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson before his death, it follows a discredited journalist hired by a rich industry magnate to investigate the decades-old disappearance of his niece. The case unfolds with the help of a young, female computer hacker, who also serves as the hook for the novel's theme: a polemic against domestic violence in Sweden. As potboilers go, it's acceptable, and the Swedish setting makes a nice change of scenery for American readers, but ultimately it's a disposable piece of pop literature with slightly elevated aspirations.

Also planted firmly in its genre is Blood Engines by Tim Pratt. In this case, it's the new urban fantasy, in which various mythical figures are transplanted onto real-world locations. Pratt does a decent job with yet another Strong Female Wizard, but it's not going to knock anyone's socks off. For me, what was most distracting about it was the way it seemed like a book from the middle of a series while actually being the first, perhaps due to the way Pratt's clumsy expository style. I may pick up some of the other books if I'm bored, but I doubt I'll seek them out if I can find anything else. On the other hand, this one is free on Kindle as a promotional deal, so it wouldn't hurt other Kindle readers to check it out.

Here's an example of the poor recommendation system at work: I'd have never heard of Chris Braak's The Translated Man if John Rogers hadn't written it up, even though it fits neatly into my Weird Fiction niche. It's a murder mystery set in a kind of steampunk Victoriana mold, with forbidden math equations and Frankenstein wannabes--a little bit New Crobuzon, a little bit H.G. Wells. It's cheap, too.

Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple is a better book than it deserves to be. As an undergraduate, he spent a semester undercover at Liberty University, just to see what it was like. The results are predictable ("Fundamentalists are people too!"), but Roose has a deft, casual voice that's generally enjoyable to read. He also writes honestly about the changes in his own habits as the Liberty culture influences him, which readers may find disturbing or comforting, depending on their perspective. Toward the middle, the book drags as he spends a bit too much time introspecting on the dilemmas of undergraduate psychology, but it picks up again at the end when Jerry Falwell, Liberty's founder, dies, and Roose turns out to have done the last public interview with the man.

If nothing else, Drood is a fine argument for the phsyical advantages of the Kindle--the original is a lengthy 784 pages. Written by Dan Simmons (author of the historical Arctic thriller The Terror), it poses as a secret diary by Wilkie Collins, writer and friend of Charles Dickens who has been overshadowed by his contemporaries. Collins tells a story about Charles Dickens and a creepy, corpse-like figure named Drood, who recruits the famous author to write his autobiography through a combination of blackmail and hypnosis. Of course, Collins is himself a highly-unreliable narrator, being an opium addict and highly jealous of Dickens' gifts. Simmons can write, that's for sure, but his examination of jealous and ego is desparately in need of editing: Drood drags on and on, and when it finally ends the force of the big reveal has been blunted by the sheer length of it all.

Simmons, of course, has a history of strong beginnings and disappointing extensions, a trait shared by Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy: Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. The first book is a relatively fresh fantasy caper (with magic powered by ingested metals) that's fun as long as you don't think about it too closely. After that, Sanderson indulges in some serious world-building, none of which is nearly as interesting--or unexpected--as he thinks it is. I'm admittedly biased: Sanderson is yet another Mormon fantasy author, and as soon as I found that out, I found myself watching for telltale injections of doctrine. Worse, I found them. As with Simmons' Hyperion books, I'd recommend reading just the first title and then pretending that the rest don't exist.

At some point, post-Watchmen movie I'd guess, I downloaded Who Can Save Us Now?, an anthology of superhero short stories edited by Owen King. As with most short-story collections, it's pretty hit or miss. Part of the problem, honestly, is that I think superheroes are probably pretty much mined-out for subtext--indeed, part of the problem is that their subtext was shallow enough to be the text itself. As a result, there's a few "stupid superhero power" stories, a couple of "superpowers where you don't expect them" stories, and some straight superhero fiction, none of which is very compelling. The standout, in my opinion, is the opening piece by Stephanie Harrell titled "Girl Reporter." It's a compact meditation on public relations, power, and the unfortunate role of Lois Lane in the superhero fantasy.

I said, when doing a capsule review of Adam Troy-Castro's Emissaries from the Dead about a year back, that I'd happily pick up a sequel--and here it is. The Third Claw of God again centers on Andrea Cort, child war criminal and intersteller lawyer, for another murder mystery IN SPACE. What I find amusing about this book--indeed, about a lot of future noir, including Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books--is how conventional they are in many ways. By this I mean that if you got rid of the space-elevator setting, or the cybernetically-linked lovers, what you've got in The Third Claw is essentially an Agatha Christie one-room mystery. This book is strongest in the middle, when those elements are most present, and weakest at the beginning and end, when Troy-Castro lays the groundwork for the multi-book meta-plot. I wish he'd stick more with the one-shot storylines: the world doesn't particularly need another grand space opera, and I suspect it won't play to his strengths.

And finally, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation finally showed up on Kindle this year. I highly recommend it, even to those who are not hip-hop fans (I'm not, really). Chang's gone back to primary sources in order to draw a line from the historical roots of the movement, its four pillars (rap, DJing, b-boying, and graffiti), and its shift from social consciousness to big business. Probably about as good an overview as anyone could hope for, clearly written by someone who has deep affection for the art form.

May 29, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»mieville

The City and the City

"You think any of the foreigners don't breach?" Buidze said, and leaned in towards us, spreading his fingers. "All we can get from them's a bit of politeness, right? And when you get a bunch of young people together, they're going to push it. Maybe it's not just looks. Did you always do what you're told? But these are smart kids."

He sketched maps on the table with his fingertips. "Bol Ye'an crosshatches here, here, and in the park it's in here and here. And yeah, over at the edges in this direction, it even creeps into Beszel total. So when this lot get drunk or whatever, don't they egg each other on to go stand in a crosshatch bit of the park? And then, who knows if they don't, maybe standing still there, without a single world, without even moving, cross over into Beszel, then back again? You don't have to take a step to do that, not if you're in a crosshatch. All here." Tapped his forehead. "No one can prove shit. Then maybe next time when they're doing that they reach down, grab a souvenir, straighten back up into Ul Qoma with a rock from Beszel or something. If that's where they were when they picked it up, that's where it's from, right? Who knows? Who could prove it?"

China Mieville seems to have a soft spot for cities. He wrote three brilliant books about the bizarre city-state of New Crobuzon. Then he took a break to do a kid's book about a hidden version of London. He released a collection of short stories that included such topics as feral streets and monsters hidden in the noise of urban life. His new book, The City and the City, continues the pattern--but it does so in a way that Mieville fans probably won't expect.

The City and the City is set in Beszel and Ul Qoma, two Eastern European cities which are, in fact, one city. They're located physically in the same space, but separated by cultural and psychological adaptations that force citizens of one city to "unsee" the other. They are, as Mieville calls them, "topolgangers" of each other, cross-hatched and intermixed but never actually mixing. Contact between the cities is forbidden, except at specified borders, and anyone violating that rule is punished by a nebulous authority known only as Breach.

The story is told by Inspector Tyador Borlu, a policeman in Beszel. Unraveling the murder of an American archaeology student who had been living in Ul Qoma, Borlu follows leads to the other city and back when Breach refuses to get involved, eventually being pulled into an international conflict--as well as the struggle between his native "blind spots" and his investigative eye. As with all Mieville's work, this is Weird Fiction at its best: working both as an examination of urban consciousness and as an enjoyable mystery novel.

In tone, however, The City and the City is something unexpected. Unlike the richly-textured, gothic landscape of the Bas Lag books, Borlu's narration is spare and relatively chilly. If anything, it reads to me as greatly influenced by Peake's Gormenghast books, for which Mieville has great admiration. Like those stories, the setting is exotic without involving any actual supernatural or magical elements--not quite realism, but not quite fantasy, and nothing so fuzzy as "magical" realism. There are also elements of Calvino, particularly in the way Mieville playfully imagines the intersections of his grosstopically-merged cities, and the conspiracy theories that emerge from them.

Ultimately, I enjoyed The City and the City, but I didn't have the strong reaction to it that I've had to Mieville's other writing. I felt like Borlu came across as distant, and not particularly interesting, and the plot had a tendency to drift a bit. For the newcomer to Mieville, this is certainly one of his more accessible works: along with Un Lun Dun, it might be a good starting place for readers who are not quite prepared for the grotesqueries of his earlier books (those who were unprepared for the man-on-scarab sex that opens Perdido Street Station, for example). Myself, I enjoyed the more outlandish aspects of the Bas Lag trilogy, and as a reader I hope more is forthcoming. But I also respect the desire for a writer to strike out in new directions instead of retreading old ground. It's a fine line to walk, and I can't wait to see where Mieville will travel next.

March 4, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Long Now Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 18, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»stephenson_n


To get to the point: Yes, Anathem is disappointing.

Reading the book, it was hard for me to keep from comparing it to Snow Crash, Stephenson's breakthrough work. As far as I'm concerned, Anathem is his first real attempt at worldbuilding since then. Like the earlier book, it contains vast swathes of exposition on the central plot conceit--then a mashup of Chomsky's universal grammar and Sumerian legends, now a confusing muddle of quantum mechanics and Western philosophy. And the two have a kind of elite-vs.-the-masses viewpoint underlying their narrative, which in both cases is ambiguous if not a little disturbing. But sadly, Anathem's no Snow Crash. It's talkier, longer, duller, and far less fun to read.

Stephenson sets his story in a world called Arbre, in which the medieval system of monastaries/convents and uneducated masses has been recreated, and which has apparently persisted for thousands of years. During this time, the monks have been sacked three times by the "Saecular" nations during revolutions, and each time they've become even more spare and inwardly focused. Each convent only opens itself to the public at predetermined intervals--some every day, some every decade, and a very few only at century and millenial ends. One year, just after his group temporarily unlocks its gates at the start of the decade, a monk named Erasmas gets swept up in a complicated conspiracy when a spaceship appears above Arbre for the first time.

The setting isn't bad--it's kind of a postmodern Canticle for Leibowitz--and Erasmas is an inoffensive, if slightly bland, character to stand in for the reader. But the plot, almost 1,000 pages of it, just isn't that exciting. Worse, it's punctuated by long stretches of characters standing around explaining quantum mechanics to each other through unexciting metaphors. Like a lot of sci-fi, setting up a central idea isn't unexpected: Snow Crash did a lot of the same thing, but it also had two things going for it: first, it had two characters to switch between when the going got too tedious, and second, the intervening action was a lot more exciting. Granted, it was a tall tale and this is not. But there, if you skipped the stories about En and the Tower of Babel, you got to read about Y.T. the skateboard Kourier and Hiro the greatest swordfighter/hacker in the world. Even in the parts of the Baroque Cycle that I've read, in between treatises on 18th century commerce, there are pirates and political intrigues. Here, your reward for skipping exposition would be either a slog across the equivalent of the north pole (somehow rendered without drama) or a list of mathematically-precise maneuvers in zero-G.

But even if you dig the plot and the discussion, I've also got bones to pick with the technical aspects of the writing in Anathem's pages. For one thing, Stephenson's apparently just given up completely on writing a realistic female character (which is a shame, given how much fun Y.T. was). For another, every character in Anathem has pretty much the same voice, which is in turn pretty much the same as Stephenson's authorial voice. We saw hints of this in Cryptonomicon, which tended to blend its protagonists voice with the prose style, but it's extremely pronounced here, and the result reads in a kind of stilted, geekish monotone. If nothing else, I wonder what kind of barbarity contractions must have performed on Stephenson in the past, he shuns them so readily. The author also continues his long history of setting up liberal-arts straw men for his scientific protagonists to knock down--a tendency he's had since Zodiac, although it only became truly pronounced in Cryptonomicon, which featured a disconcertingly vicious parody of relativism and academia.

There's nothing wrong with writing concept novels. That's why we have science fiction. But great concept novels need to be thought-provoking, and Anathem isn't. After you break down the speeches and the theorizing, without spoiling anything, what you're left with just isn't terribly interesting or novel. The setting's separated communities are never really used for anything other than some deus ex machina, and their potential for commentary or satire is largely wasted. I finished the book feeling like I had myself been locked in a dusty room for too long, and was glad I could finally open the gates.

September 9, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Pros and Cons

Traveling to St. Paul was a great chance to clear out a bunch of the samples I'd been saving on my Kindle. As long as you're traveling in the US, where the EVDO connection has packets to grab, it's a handy device to have at the airport. Here are a few capsule reviews, including ones left over from the last set.

Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff, has been endorsed highly by Boing Boing on the strength of the writing and the cover art. The latter should be a warning sign. It's a book about a secret organization that assassinates evil people ("bad monkeys") in the name of justice, and one girl's induction into it. As secret conspiracies go, this one is kind of lame, honestly, and a lot of its gimmicks (like the "natural causes gun") have been handled better by other authors (see: Iain Banks). There's the eventual double-cross, and what the author no doubt considers a trick ending, but in the end it comes across as unsympathetic and random--like the Illuminatus trilogy but without the wit or the excuse of heavy drug use.

Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora (and its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies) are basically crime caper novels set in a "new weirdist" city somewhat along the lines of China Mieville's Bas Lag. It's not quite so distant from reality, however: if it weren't for a few details that crop up, their plotlines could easily be dropped into renaissance Italy. Lynch has several more books planned in this setting, and I hope he keeps it grounded, since both efforts are tightly plotted and stuffed with fun characters and clever dialog.

I haven't seen Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational get nearly the attention it deserves, so allow me to praise it here. A book about the psychological externalities of behavioral economics, Ariely devotes each chapter to an experiment that explores market participants' odd and imperfect decisions. He also concludes each chapter with thoughtful suggestions on how this should affect public policy, particularly policy based on the fallacy of the "rational consumer." The result is a practical and ultimately humane look at structuring the world around human nature, instead of free market ideology.

The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester, is the biographical story of Joseph Needham, who developed an interest in Chinese history late in life and began writing the Science and Civilization in China series about its early technological discoveries. Needham is a fascinating character: a would-be renaissance man, an exceptionally quick study at languages, and a communist blinded by his politics to the hard truths of Mao's revolution. But I suspect that this book, while competently written, is most engaging to people who are fans of Needham's work, or those who share a similarly glowing view of the Middle Kingdom.

Speaking of imports from Asia, Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque caught my eye because I kept seeing her previous novel, Out, in the mystery section of the bookstore--it's not available on Kindle, though. Which is too bad, because I hear it's got a number of virtues that Grotesque is entirely lacking. A kind of bizarre ugly-duck story, it's about two sisters, one of whom is beautiful but manipulative and oversexed while the other is unattractive (but still manipulative and unpleasant). I'm all for flawed characters, but there's not one person in the book with a real redeeming feature, and the narration is plodding and unreliable. It was work to finish, with little payout in the end.

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is an unapologetic homage to Heinlein's Starship Troopers with a few twists. Scalzi's a competent writer with a deft hand at sarcasm, but I guess I've outgrown the source material. What is it someone once said: the golden age for sci-fi is 10 or 11? Yeah. Also, while this is perhaps to be expected from a book that celebrates the Military Fascism of the Future, there's a truly loathsome strawman for pacifist liberal appeasers in there that left a bad taste in my mouth. Since I know Scalzi's a better writer (and, I had thought, a clearer thinker) than that, the venom of it frankly took me by surprise, and made it a little hard to enjoy the rest of the plot.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds is kind of an odd one. The first novel by Cherie Priest, it's a kind of Southern gothic ghost story that can't make up its mind which side of the fence it's on. When it restricts itself to the main character's navigation through her rotten family tree, it's on much more solid ground than the mystical tangents into voodoo, which overtake the ending and overwhelm what's otherwise a wry, well-written book with a clever--if noticably Mary Sue-ish--protagonist.

I don't read very much hard science fiction these days, but Robert Charles Wilson's Spin was offered free as part of a Tor promotion, and you can't beat that price. I tried a lot of the free books, and didn't make it past the first chapter on most, but I liked Spin. Wilson's big idea is that aliens surround the Earth in a time-dilation envelope, where a small amount of time inside is the equivalent of thousands of years outside. I liked the description of the worldwide reaction (or non-reaction, in many cases) and the relationship of the narrator to a pair of twin siblings who split off on very different courses as a result. If I had to compare Spin to its predecessors, I'd probably say it evokes classic A. C. Clarke as much as anyone, and that's not a bad thing at all.

As a huge fan of The Wire (finishing season five now), I picked up Felicia "Snoop" Pearson's autobiography Grace After Midnight. Eh. Onscreen, Snoop's strength is her laconic delivery and sense of businesslike menace, neither of which is present here, and the heavy hand of the ghostwriter manages to crush most of the remaining personality right out. The story of how a crack baby from Baltimore grew up on the streets and then ended up playing herself on HBO deserves a better telling than this. Too bad there's not an audiobook.

Maybe she should have teamed up with Wire writer George Pelecanos, who just came out with The Turnaround. Compared to The Night Gardener, it's less procedural, more concerned with inheritance and family. The book starts during the eighties, when three white kids in DC drive into a black neighborhood and start a racially-motivated fight, ending with one of them shot and another scarred. Moving to the present day, Pelecanos depicts how the participants on both sides of the color line have lived since the incident, how they react when it resurfaces, and the healing that takes place afterward. I don't think it's quite as evocative as The Night Gardener, and Pelecanos has a tendency to tell instead of showing. But I like what he's doing with crime fiction, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to non-genre readers.

Finally, two books that everyone's probably already read from the literary fiction category: Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. The former is a kind of mystery story told by an autistic kid, which has gotten great reviews but I eventually found tiresome--particularly in the second half, when it switches genres into road trip territory. The latter is a good story hobbled by glacial pacing and a strong dose of melodrama--particularly in the second half, which has an almost Shakespearian view of romance-as-deus-ex-machina, and not in a good way. So: let's hear it for disappointing second halves!

As a side note, Neal Stephenson's Anathem was released today (it's ten dollars cheaper on Kindle, so you know which version I've ordered). I don't have high hopes. Stephenson started strong with the brilliant Snow Crash, as well as the underrated Big U and Zodiac. Then he seemed to get a bit muddled with The Diamond Age, began careening around libertarian conspiracy theories in Cryptonomicon, and finally stymied my reading efforts completely with the System of the World trilogy, in which he apparently eschewed any kind of editing in favor of page upon page of regurgitated background research. I'm also not optimistic when he describes the title of his new book in an interview as "one letter away from 'anthem' or 'anathema'." But you never know. Maybe this one will be the book that makes me care again.

Past - Present - Future