Saturday, December 31, 2011

100 Books 82 - Ray Banks' DEAD MONEY



Well, so, I didn't make it to 100 books this year. Eighty-two is still pretty good, though, especially since I made this challenge even more restrictive by insisting that my 100 books had to be by 100 different authors -- meaning that, for instance, all five enormous extant volumes of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire only counted as one book.Throw in a few lunkers like Moby Dick (oddly enough the most popular single entry ever at Kate of Mind) and, well, I screwed myself pretty well, didn't I?

Interestingly enough, the protagonist of Ray Banks' Dead Money spends a lot of his story feeling like he's screwed himself pretty well, too, but in much more colorful ways. Arguably, it's really his frienemy, Les Beale, who's really done the screwing, but that kind of spoils my segue, doesn't it?

Dead Money is a quick read and a thoroughly enjoyable one, a Guy Ritchie film in prose, minus a lot of the showing off. It concerns an ordinary man, a door-to-door salesman, whose pal and former idol not only has a gambling problem, but has a gambling problem in Manchester, UK, a city of impenetrable accents (unless one watches a LOT of the Beeb), seedy gambling palaces, and thuggery. At least this slice of it is such, anyway.

It being so short (164 pages -- but you know, that was an ordinary novel length, back in the day. We've just gotten used to doorstops), it's hard to describe without giving things away. It's a nice caper tale, told in a believable and likable first person narrative voice, and brims with slapstick action and just a pinch of drawing room drama.

It was a nice way to round out my year -- and get me psyched up to try again. Tomorrow I start 100 Books again back at #1.

This year, I'm not trying for the unique author thing.

Friday, December 30, 2011

100 Books 81 - Aliette de Bodard's SERVANT OF THE UNDERWORLD



Love fantasy but getting a little tired of the European shouty white guys in shiny armor schtick? Love crime fiction but think it could use a bit more imagination? Love godpunk but wondering how many more times you can sit through iterations of Greek and Celtic mythology?

Here's your new favorite writer.

Aliette de Bodard first came to my attention when I got hit up (on vacation in Toronto, no less!) to narrate a story of hers for Dark Fiction magazine's audio edition, "As the Wheel Turns" -- a moving, deeply involving tale set in a pseudo-Chinese, sorta Buddhist cosmos (you can listen here). I enjoyed the hell out of reading it even though it was under time pressure and essentially a cold read, the story unfolding as I blathered into the mic at the awesome VALIS in downtown Toronto (and yes, it is a Philip K. Dick reference; those guys are really that awesome).

For Servant of the Underworld and its sequels, the endlessly erudite and inventive de Bodard takes us to different days of yore: the Aztec empire. And oh yeah, she goes there. I would not recommend these books for the squeamish: every time a spell needs casting (and this is godpunk, so spells need casting a lot), someone has to open a vein. Or two*. And probably sacrifice an animal. Blood, blood, blood. Even I got queasy, and I'm hard to gross out.

For those who can stomach all the bloodiness, though, Servant of the Underworld offers an amazing treat, a combination of police procedural (the protagonist is a priest of the God of Death and thus has the intellectual and magical mojo to figure out whodunnit, how and why) and big time world-saving fantasy (said priest protagonist winds up having to marshal barely-sufficient forces [and sacrificial parrots and owls] to save the world, Aztec-style), all flavored with a glimpse into a culture few of us know about.

And it's truly a different culture, not just bog standard fantasy tropes and gods under different names. The god of war, for instance, is a hummingbird -- not an obvious choice unless you've watched a bunch of Rufous hummingbirds battling it out over a feeder. Death is presented, very often, utterly undisguised but still occurring as a seductive option with a near-irresistible allure. And did I mention the bloodletting? Magic in this world freaking hurts!

All of this is bound up in an engrossing and moving tale of repressed sibling rivalry, the Hero's Journey, and a dash of soap opera. I expect the soap opera elements to come more to the fore in the sequels, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts, both of which appear to concern themselves a bit more with Aztec imperial court politics than this one did.

Bring it on, Aliette!

*Really, as I read this book, I kept thinking, "well jeeze, no wonder the Conquistadors kicked the Aztecs' asses, the poor bastards must have been near-anemic all the time!" No, not very charitable, but dude, LOTS of ritual bloodletting. Like every day. At least in this poetic-licensed version of daily Aztec life. Dude.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

100 Books 80 - Neal Stephenson's REAMDE



I'm still mad at Harper Collins for its outrageous ebook price on this, which forced me to put wear and tear on the hardcover, but that's not Neal's fault. At least I don't think so.

But regardless, it's Neal Expletiving Stephenson, and I can't not read him, I discover, even though his last effort, Anathem, left me a bit cold. Oh, don't get me wrong, there was lots to like about Anathem: it was clever, inventive, imaginative, sometimes even entertaining -- but it read more like a really long Platonic anecdote than a story. Thin on plot, forgettable characters, hard at time to believe it's Stephenson at all, except for the language.

REAMDE, on the other hand. Ah, REAMDE. The title refers to a computer virus that encrypts all of the files on an infected computer and holds them to ransom until a certain sum of game currency (which is convertible into real world money) is deposited in a certain realm in an MMORPG that was originally developed by a backpack marijuana smuggler as a way of laundering his enormous stock of $100 bills. And that's just for starters.

So in a very real way, REAMDE has rather the opposite problem from Anathem, as if Stephenson realized his errors in Anathem and decided to cram twice as much story into the next book. Maybe even three times as much: Stephenson does nothing half-assed, after all.

This makes the experience of reading REAMDE (I pronounce it mentally as "reamed" though I know full well it's meant as a faux typo of "readme") rather stressful and exhausting and occasionally producing of doubt that it's worth the pounding one is getting. Which is unfortunate as there is still lots of good stuff here, some even, perhaps, on a par with the famous discourse on Captain Crunch that is the thing everyone seems to remember best about Cryptonomicon (still far and away Stephenson's finest work in every respect). An excursis on what Stephenson pithily refers to as "recombinant cuisine"* comes to mind, for instance. And don't get me started on his whole "medieval armed combat as metaphor for everything" routine.

Mostly, though, it's worth it, even though one starts off, being introduced to the character of Richard Forthrast (he of the aforementioned dope smuggling/Fortune 500 game founding/British Columbia schloss ownership), wondering if Stephenson is going to pull the kind of fast one he did in the Baroque Cycle, getting one invested in a fascinating character one would be quite happy to read about for a thousand pages or so, only to yank that character away and throw a bunch of others at one.

Which he did. Ugh.

Fortunately, most of what is switched in is good. He's gotten better at writing female characters (though his heroine, Zula**, is pluckier than a warehouse full of harps, OMG) for a start. No emetic Elizas this time around, which is good. As other reviewers have observed, however, every single one of these characters would make McGyver look like a helpless boob who still needs to have his mittens attached to his coat sleeves. This feels pretty far-fetched even before Stephenson, late in the book, has one of his characters observing how unlikely it really is that his situation happens to call for his exact skill set; he's straying into Robert A. Heinlein superpeople territory here, but it's all in good fun, mostly.***

I seem to be using a lot of qualifiers here, but that reflects my extremely mixed feelings about REAMDE. Is it Stephenson's best book since Cryptonomicon? Assuredly. I loved the Baroque Cycle but those three volumes were, let's just say, a bit much, and spent way too much time with a character whom I found irredeemably annoying. And I've already shared my dismay with Anathem. So yes, REAMDE is Crypto's best successor so far. But it lacks the essential elements of mystery and history that Crypto had, and it loses, about halfway through, the feeling that something subtle and wry and puzzling is going on. The only mysteries in REAMDE, are first, who made the virus (mystery solved about 25-30% through the book) and then, the rest of the way through, how all the characters (and really, there are too many characters; an editor who really cared would have, for instance, persuaded Neal to strongly consider getting rid of the spy chick and extra soldier sidekick, whose storylines are really unnecessary and give the book most of its bloated feel) are going to find their way back to each other.**** And who is going to get to kill the bad guy. Everyone is in constant, frantic motion but there is never the feeling that their peril and escapes and interminable, minutely described action scenes have any kind of deeper meaning -- very odd for Stephenson.

He hasn't lost me yet, though. I still look forward to his experimental internet-generated collaboration The Mongoliad, in which he returns to a historical milieu wherein, I think Stephenson is at his best, because, fun as it is to speculate about what the world is going to be like someday, it's far more satisfying, for a mind like his, to explore how the world as it is got to be this way -- with lots of wordplay, challenging conceptual frameworks, and big time dweebs in action.

*"Recombinant cuisine" meaning food made of other food, rather than of ingredients. Rice Krispie treats being his prime example in this book.

**Did he deliberately name her after the Grace Jones character in Conan the Destroyer? Because I'm pretty sure that led me to mis-visualize the somewhat more demure Miss Forthrast.

***Stephenson has developed, for this book, a weird and harmful tic regarding his characters, though: I lost count of how many times he has someone saying or thinking "Can this really be happening?" This is a dangerous flaw for a big work of fiction. Fiction relies on the willing suspension of disbelief, which Stephenson's fans readily engage from page one because we've learned to trust him -- but when the very characters whose exploits and situations we're supposed to be enjoying keep questioning the plausibility of said exploits and situations, the effect is usually to jolt the reader out of that suspension. One starts to agree that yes, this pickle character X is in is highly unlikely and a bit of a stretch, which leads to a big damn annoyance when the now extra-critical and newly skeptical reader gets hung up on why the hell is this chick part of this book and what the hell did her entirely unnecessary extra jaunt halfway around the world accomplish besides introducing the other superfluous character OMGWTFBBQ.

****And I do mean back to each other. For some reason, Stephenson felt compelled to generate not one, not two, but three ill-advised romantic subplots. I half-expected a big Shakespearean group wedding at the end.

Friday, December 23, 2011

100 Books 79 - Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO



I didn't know what to expect in diving into this much-hyped little blockbuster of a novel, but I did not expect superhero fiction.

I would very much argue, though, that this is what I got: superhero fiction disguised as Scandinavian noir, a decent quality prose comic book (I imagine the panel design in my head as very jagged and irregular).

The titular Girl, Lisbeth Salander, comes off as a good take on what a real life Millerian Batman might actually be like, how one might come to be. She has none of Bruce Wayne's advantages (all of which struck me as just a little far fetched, even for a superhero comic, sorry) but all of the Dark Knight's near-sociopathy and demented power -- all packed into a tiny, helpless-looking frame. I certainly wouldn't want to mess with her.

Here this real life, badass Batgirl -- hacker, dogged researcher, tightly wound coilspring of menace and violence -- is turned loose in a satisfyingly intricate mystery story, paired with an ace financial reporter recovering from being badly outmaneuvered by his nemesis and set to tracking down what starts as a baffling disappeared girl case but turns out a kitchen sink of villainy. It's almost over the top, or would be if the mystery and the revelations were in any way the point. But they aren't. The point is the Girl, duh. And it's all a unique chance for her to shine. And whale at a bad guy with a golf club. And set up a hell of a round of techno-financial dominoes to dump every tile on the other bad guy's head. Like I said, I wouldn't want to mess with her.

But I feel like she sure as hell messed with me. Reading her first chronicle is a disorienting experience, starting off as an agonizingly slow burn as the reporter is set on the task of tracking down the missing girl and weirdly intercutting shocking scenes from Lisbeth's uncomfortable life, sometimes transitioning in mid-paragraph without warning. I can see why many readers admire this trick -- it conveys the simultaneity very well, and takes a good stab at blending thematic elements in the reader's head rather than in the text itself, the way George Seurat's pointilism creates new shades of color in the viewer's eye via principles of optical mixing -- but I often found it jarring and annoying.

Maybe that's the point, though.

In closing, I must say that I'm definitely developing a taste for Scandinavian noir. I've long fancied the region (especially Iceland) and its cinema, and now find myself wanting to read, well, perhaps some of the very crime fiction with which the reporter beguiles his leisure hours.

But I've also been given a good list of other examples, particularly of Icelandic crime writers, by a Twitter friend.

The new year may prove dark, cold and crime-y. Which is fine.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

100 Books 78 - Emile Zola's HIS MASTERPIECE



Ah, me, I've been wondering, as I've read this, when the perfect time to read this might have been. Better late than never, of course, but I can't help wondering if it might have done me more good earlier in life.

Then again, earlier in life, I would probably have had far too much in common with our wonderfully tragic hero, Claude Latiner to have taken this book's observations, its lessons, to heart or in any way profit from them. I would have rolled my eyes, sighed dramatically, read resentfully, had someone instructed me to at 20 -- perhaps even at 30.

So perhaps now is the perfect time to have read this. At 41, I still feel closer perhaps to the beginning of my career than its end, but have experienced enough of what the world has to offer -- and to deny -- would-be artists to recognize Claude's errors even as I sympathize with his passions.

At this age I also have more patience with this book's one possible flaw: Zola has let his characters, passionate, angry young artists, all, go nuts with the speechifying. Would people actually let each other run on like this in real life -- especially in taverns over bottles and bottles of wine? Characters deliver outright manifestos (that sound exactly like what hipsters in coffee shops all over the developed world here in the 21st century spout) while all their equally fired-up, drunken friends just listen? But I forgive them, and Zola. It's good stuff, both touchingly naive and wildly inspirational at once to an artist just beginning to deliver on promise seen in years past.

Which is to say that there's a bit of a cautionary tale at the heart of this story, but it's subtle, which makes it all the more effective. Having read, as my readers know, a lot material this year on all of the ways human brains delude themselves, I found His Masterpiece served as a brilliant case study -- which just proves that we, or at least our greatest novelists, have known all along that we are not so smart. Science is just confirming this.

But what, for me, really made His Masterpiece one of my best reads of this year was how Zola managed to translate the purely visual into the verbal, not just in describing the paintings and sculptures and criticism created by his characters, but also in delivering to the reader the visceral visual experience of being in Paris in the late 19th century. How long must he have sat and studied these vistas, just as painters might (reading of these artists' careers and ideals and goals now, in an age of digital photography and instant visual gratification, both alienates and lures the modern reader)! What writer today could exercise that kind of patience? Who needs painstakingly to describe the interior of an Applebees or a King Soopers or a Starbucks? The words themselves come with a prepackaged set of sensory associations available to any lazy writer. Zola had none of this at his disposal, just as his plein air painters had no cameras but their own eyes, their sketches, and their memories.

And look at all they accomplished.

Now it's our turn.

*And yes, that this novel is based on Zola's real-life friendship with Paul Cezanne, but only loosely. Don't go looking for biographical accuracy here. This is Emile Fracking Zola, kids.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

100 Books 77 - David McRaney's YOU ARE NOT SO SMART



I've picked up a few popular neuroscience "your wacky brain" books this year -- Kluge, Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite, etc -- and they've all been pretty interesting, but only one of them had me racing along, relatively unable to put it down*, and that was You are Not So Smart.


I've been a fan of author David McRaney's blog of the same name almost from the beginning, so I wasn't expecting to see a lot of new material here. I was pleasantly surprised on that score, though: while a lot of the same ground is covered, it is covered more elegantly, phrased and explained better for the layman. If the blog is a mid-level IT support guide, this book is an end-user's manual, full of well-chosen examples and analogies covering all of the classics that are somewhat old hat to a pop neuroscience freak like me but are still things it's good to be reminded of. And re-reminded. And re-re-reminded.

When it comes to this stuff - the sunk cost fallacy, confimation bias, etc. -- we're fighting a mostly losing battle to overcome it. Our first job is, of course, to notice it -- but that's something our brains, great energy hogs that have evolved to use the energy they hog as efficiently (meaning lazily) as possible, resist noticing these errors entirely without fairly strenuous conscious effort. I think in the end that only exposure, over and over again, to these sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes ungraspable, sometimes embarrassing but always fascinating truths can help us.

What I've really been looking for as I've sifted through the pop neuro section is precisely what You are Not So Smart is: a handy dandy pocket guide to the way my brain might betimes be failing me, and what I can do about it.

It lives on my Kindle. I shall consult it often. Perhaps even between chapters of other books I'm reading (see asterisk note below).


*I say relatively unable because, well, if you haven't noticed, I'm one of those monkey-minded maniacs who is reading sometimes as many as a dozen books at a time. I used to think it was bad enough when it was just three or four, back when lugging around dead tree was my sole option, but the Kindle revealed to me the true depths of my depravity. But hey, it's not like I don't finish them, eventually.

Friday, December 16, 2011

100 Books 76 - Robert Zubrin's HOW TO LIVE ON MARS



Half science, half science fiction, Robert Zubrin's How to Live on Mars: A Trusty Guidebook to Surviving and Thriving on the Red Planet is a fantastic read for anyone who is interested in the possibility of permanent human habitation of other worlds -- except for one thing. The Kindle edition seriously blows, the single worst ebook experience I have ever had. I think someone at Three Rivers/Random House scanned in a 14th generation photocopy of the uncorrected manuscript and didn't even bother to proofread the OCR errors afterwards*. It's truly shameful. Never again can anyone from Big Publishing sneer at any self-published author's efforts.

Which is a terrible pity, because that aside, this is a fun, fascinating book.

Written, as the title suggests, as a guidebook for new immigrants to the hundred-year-old human settlements on Mars, Zubrin's work has an amusing narrative voice, a ton of practical science lessons and a tremendous amount of imagination. Some readers will dislike its Heinleinian/Libertarian bent (there is an excursis on global warming on earth, which Zubrin maintains is/was a good thing, that will make a lot of you blink hard), its presupposition that you as both reader of the copyright 2008 semi-fiction text and a prospective future immigrant to the well-established colonies in a century or so, are planning your move to Mars to get away from Big Government oppression and start a one-person Galt's Gulch with all the other Galts on the red planet, its focus on the profit motive -- but if she can get past that (and the disgraceful typesetting), the reader will very likely be charmed, as I was, by the vividly imagined realities and possibilities of human colonization of the rest of the solar system.

Zubrin is an aerospace engineer in real life, so all of his proposals for how to meet survival needs (cracking soil and rocks for water, etc) as well as for how and why to settle the place at all (as well established in his The Case for Mars) are thoroughly backed up with all the science and math the reader could wish for (or skip over, if one is feeling lazy), but he never gets dull or pedantic, never drops character. From start to finish, he is the imaginary author (bitching about Random House's lawyers and all) of a cheeky samizdat survival guide, brash, opinionated, digging into the reader's ribs and patting himself on the back for having had the foresight to get there first and invest wisely in the best companies that are out there busily exploiting humanity's next great habitat.

That it managed to be this much fun despite the constant extra effort of parsing past missing "Ls" and nonsensically broken words and giant run-on unintentional portmanteaus is truly remarkable, and as such I would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different to read. It would also make pretty decent reference material for sci-fi writers. But in either case, get this one on Dead Tree. Or just pirate it. I bet the pirates did a better job than Random House did.

Morons.

*Here's just one example -- and it's far from the worst: "toputanatmospherinan un reinfo reed brick house on Mars."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

100 Books 75 - Phil Rossi's EDEN



I have been looking forward to this one for a long, long time. Even though I knew how it ended, even though 'most every word was going to be familiar. I wanted simply to read this story and not be distracted by all of the bells and whistles (very distracting and sexy and haunting bells and whistles) that accompanied its podcast version. Said podcast version being my favorite, possibly ever.

So how does the story stand up on its own?*

Marvelously.

Eden is the name the men and women working for a corporate exploiter of outer space and its resources have given to an anomaly found more or less orbiting the planet Uranus. Said anomaly being a giant (seriously giant, as in getting compared to legendary world ash tree Yggdrasl giant) tree, hanging out on its own in space, lush green leaves and all. Self-generated atmosphere and all. Undeniably compelling pull on the scientists examining it and all.

Sounds nice, doesn't it, off the wall and possibly lyrical? Which it is. But this is Phil Rossi, absolutely the H.P. Lovecraft of outer space, and things are gonna get creepy, even as they get ever more ravishing. Beauty is terror, and terror can be beautiful, sez Phil, and goes on to prove it in gorgeously descriptive, note-perfect prose.**

All of this is conveyed to us by a marvelously flawed protagonist, out to explore the tree with questionable motives, seemingly incapable of following his moral compass, curious, overwhelmed but still trying, in his fumbling but stylish way, to do what he's out there to do even as he lands right in the middle of a crappy, pre-fabricated space station in crisis. His sense of wonder and his guilt don't drive the story -- the events that unfold upon his arrival feel too inevitable -- but they suck the reader/listener in and make her feel like, or wish, she was there, even though she knows things aren't going to end well.

I already knew I was going to love it, of course.

*Not that it's ever truly on its own. I defy anyone who has ever listened to a Phil Rossi fiction podcast not to hear his growling drawl in his or her head while reading his prose. I'm pretty sure it's not possible. But I could be biased that way.

**Rossi's Lovecraftiness does not extend to his precursor's tendency to purple prose. He is Lovecraftian because he presents us with vast, impersonal, unknowable cosmic horror, dwelling in that space (ha ha!) in which incomprehension shades into madness, not because he emulates the overheated pre-modern prose style. To which I say: hooray!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

100 Books 74 - Stephen Baxter's FLOOD



Oy, will someone tell me why I keep reading this man's books?

It's not that they're at all bad, mind you -- they've scientific verisimilitude in spades, are decently written, and tell compelling stories. They're just so god damn misanthropically, hopelessly, possibility killingly bleak they make The Road look like a sunshine-y tale of a boy and his daddy tripping through the daisies. Even when, as in the Manifold trilogy, they deal with our voyages (or, at least, our enhanced squid surrogates' voyages) to infinity and beyond.

You're never more than a page-turn away, in a Stephen Baxter book, from being confronted with the grim finalities that await us, our species, our planet, our sun, our galaxy. Depressing as HELL.

But it's still generally decent stuff, damn it.

I hate Stephen Baxter and I can't make myself stop reading his stuff.

This time around, Baxter has kind of stolen Greg Bear's clothes -- the Greg Bear of Forge of God and Anvil of Stars, at least inasmuch as this first book (there is a sequel, Ark, which I'll be reading next year, no doubt) exhaustively and painstakingly details the destruction of human civilization and, more or less, our planet, while the second looks to concern itself with a spaceship ark, traveling to the stars to give humanity and a genome bank full of other earthly life a second chance elsewhere.

The difference here being that Bear created a malevolent alien race to do the destroying (in the first book) and the being-hunted-down-for-revenge (in the second), but, Baxter being Baxter, it's all our own fault in Flood/Ark.

Baxter has also stolen, or at least laundered and patched up, some of his own clothes: anyone who has read his Evolution will have a hard time not thinking of it as the Anthropocene era on Earth comes to a disastrous end in Flood. It's as though he took the middle narrative of Evolution (a sketch of Homo sapiens sapiens, its day come at last after a good third of the story having been spent detailing its glorious journey from single-celled extremophile to talking primate with a big carbon footprint that is busy killing itself off, a victim of its own success, a failed experiment on Nature's part, soon to be replaced by non-sentient beasties herded by fierce giant rodents) and expanded it into a whole novel. Which is fine, for all that.

So as you might guess, as disaster porn it's first rate. Baxter does his homework and has a vivid and detailed (if grim and morbid) imagination; the reader feels very much a part of the action as neighborhoods, then cities, then regions, and finally entire continents disappear forever under the rising tide of the swelling seas*, even if she doesn't give a fig about what happens to the one-dimensional characters that populate the story. He has spent, as usual, a lot more time thinking about the grand implications of his disaster than on the people living it out -- though this time around he has come up with a pretty good excuse for all of the exposition that has to happen, in the form of a primary cast of characters who have just been released from a half-decade-long hostage situation: they really were living under a rock while climate change suddenly ramped itself up to 11.

If asked, I would not recommend this book, or any of Baxter's books, to new readers, because they really are depressing, disquieting, damaging as hell. But if you're like me, already a reluctant, gnashy-toothed fan of his, know that the bastard has still got it.

*His explanation for why this is happening is, as is usual for Baxter, taken from cutting edge theory, in this case, a sort of thought experiment imagining what could happen if it turned out to be true that all of the water vapor that was present at the time of earth's original formation was still trapped deep inside its crust and mantle (the surface water having been deposited later by comets) as subterranean oceans -- and something happened to poke holes in that reservoir and draw all that water to the surface.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

100 Books 73 - Jules Verne's EIGHT HUNDRED LEAGUES ON THE AMAZON




Most of us know Jules Verne as one of the granddaddies of science fiction. Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days... Balloons! Submarines! Weird-looking tunnel borers!

Sometimes, though, our boy liked to try his hand at somewhat more conventional storytelling. I say "somewhat" because apparently even when he staked out what a slightly later age would tend to regard as the territory of Joseph Conrad, and an even later age as that of Werner Herzog, he still went a little crazy with it – both in terms of sheer possibility and of melodrama.

Exhibit A of this kind of Verniana would be his Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, in which he, not content to simply write what the rather bland title might imply, did not confine himself to any ordinary boat trip. Our heroes and heroines do indeed travel 800 leagues on the Amazon River from Peru deep into Brazil, but this is Jules Verne: this ain't no flotilla of canoes. Klaus Kinski is not going to lose his marbles on this trip.

Instead the vessel of choice is both cargo and ship, a raft called by the local term jangada, constructed from a small forest's worth of valuable timber and big enough to transport a small village down the river. That's right: village. These voyagers build several houses, storage sheds, and even a chapel complete with church bell onto the back of this raft. A prosperous farmer's family, servants and farmhands are all making the trip.

A Wyoming girl born and raised, I suffered repeated failures of imagination as I took this journey with the family. The biggest river I knew growing up was one I could wade across to go get a snack. I was 16 before I beheld anything much bigger, the Mississippi, but the bus I was on drove very rapidly over the bridge, and thus that river's impact on me was minor. My college years were spent literally on the banks of the Hudson, but even that, even after spending four years white-knuckling a steering wheel every time I drove across the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, didn't seem like quite a big enough body of water to gently carry village on its bosom.

I just kept thinking of Fitzcarraldo, if not of Aguirre, and waiting for the journey to fail, or at least run into some major logistical problems.

But instead – exhaustive geographical and natural historical survey of the Amazon aside – Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon is actually more of an ordinary human story than that. There is crime, there is covetousness, there is young love, and an earnest tribute to good, old-fashioned, hokey honor.

There is, in other words, rather an ordinary 19th-century romance, with a bit more science than usual tossed in. This may give some readers, expecting some more proto-steampunk goodness, cause to complain; it never really becomes an exciting story, given that most of the action is provided simply by them forward motion of the current. But there is good melodrama, and the second half of the novel has a lovely cryptological bent to it.

File it under gently diverting reads.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

100 Books 72 - Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's THE 10,000 YEAR EXPLOSION: HOW CIVILIZATION ACCELERATED HUMAN EVOLUTION




I actually read this book a while ago. I try not to put too much significance on the fact that I'm only blogging it now. The 10,000 Year Explosion is a fine book. It covers a subject I'm genuinely interested in. It makes an argument that I do find compelling.

But, like with Sex at Dawn, I'm probably very much a singer in the choir this book is preaching to.

It is always seemed obvious to me that human beings are still evolving. We talked in middle school about how our earlobes and pinky toes seem to be disappearing, physiological variations among ourselves, the uselessness of the appendix... So I don't find the argument that evolution did not stop when species Homo sapiens sapiens first thought to bang the rocks together, guys, to be at all controversial.

Nonetheless there's lots of neat stuff to explore here. The authors do a wonderful job of pointing out just how much we been able to learn about ourselves due to modern advances in the science of genetics. The study of genetic drift, the research into just how much Neanderthal DNA we might all still have, how certain have come to prevail in certain human populations, is all quite fascinating.

For instance, I am lactose tolerant because early herders in the steppes of Eurasia somewhere gave rise to a genetic sport who was able to keep drinking milk into adulthood, who thus thrived and produced just enough offspring to let his mutated gene drift into the population. Human migration and the fact that were not as a species really completely monogamous help to spread and become commonplace among my ancestors.

I love that I can drink milk eat yogurt (which I quite enjoy making myself) and have bones so strong that no bicycle crashes yet broken them. I am descended from a long line of stupendous badass evolutionary successes. And so are you.

Unfortunately none of my ancestors developed any helpful mutations that make me well-suited to sit in an office frantically typing and mousing (mousing with two hands by the way) for 10 hours a day. The people who do will own the future and have an obligation to have a lot of unprotected sex. For the good of the species.

But meanwhile, someone smarter and maybe a little more patient than I am, heritable traits perhaps both, developed the software I'm using to create this blog entry.

Dragon, baby: when you can't afford to wait for evolution.

Monday, December 5, 2011

100 Books 71 - Peter Watts' BLINDSIGHT



Anyone who likes a good dose of neuroscientific anecdote -- or spaceship mechanics -- in their science fiction owes it to him- or herself to lay mitts on a copy of this fantastic, Alastair Reynolds-ish First Contact novel as soon as possible. Being such a one myself, I enjoyed the hell out of Blindsight.

Among other things, it comes through with the best excuse for an omniscient narrator -- a conceit of which I'm not a huge fan -- that I've yet seen. For a start, our narrator is a special kind of savant (who describes himself as a human Chinese Box, meaning yet another little plum to this novel, if you're a fan, as I am, of theorizing about Artificial Intelligence) who can only read the surfaces of people -- body language, microexpressions, etc. -- but doesn't ever really understand a damn thing anyone says. And on top of that, everyone on board the good ship Theseus is linked via a kind of machine telepathy. So yes, we know what everyone is thinking and why, but there is a reason we know what everyone is thinking and why that does not involve authorial adherence to a dumb, lazy crutch of a convention. YAY!!!

But that isn't even what is going to grab most people, because another thing this book has going on is VAMPIRES IN SPACE. Pretty much the coolest boffo concept since Brand Gamblin cooked up BEAR POLO. They're not, though, I'm glad to say, ordinary vampires yanked out of horror or fantasy or goth wank fiction and dropped into a first contact story; they are science fiction vampires, and they're just plausible enough to belong there, once the initial shock of "WTF are these vampires doing in my incomprehensible alien artifact story" wears off.

And that's enough typing for me today. Go git this'un, folks. It's good stuff.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

100 Books 70 - Mark A. Rayner's MARVELOUS HAIRY



I wonder if Mark A. Rayner and Kurtis J. Wiebe know each other, because they seem to share as deep a love for monkeys and robots as they do an antipathy for mad scientists.

But that's neither here nor there, and my elbows are paining me. Moving on. Because god damn, did I get a kick out of this whacked-out Tom-Robbins-without-all-the-half-baked-lyricism-esque sci-fi satire of a novel, which takes a firm stand  against biotechnology firms and executives who think their wealth and power entitles them to play god without ever getting too didactic, because, well, how didactic can you get exactly when you've got a character whose main way of responding to tense or weird situations is to release a dozen macaques (and, once, a Komodo dragon)?

Yeah, it's like that.

Marvelous Hairy purports to be a novel in five fractals, which is maybe meant to be a stylistic/narrative experiment of some sort that I didn't bother teasing out because I was just enjoying the mostly straightforward, only slightly asynchronous, story of a gang of old college buddies (who might do as a more realistic version of Wiebe's Intrepids) (and who spend a lot of time, as smart people with too much time on their hands and too easy an access to recreational drugs might, pondering the supposed evolutionary layers of the human brain, the human, the monkey, the lizard and the fish) who pit themselves against a big bad biotech corporation when said big bad biotech performs a wildly unethical experiment on one of their own, their loopy blue-eyed boy, who is suddenly and rapidly devolving into some kind of pre-human monkey man state that is perhaps irresistibly sexy to the lay-days but harms, perhaps, his future prospects for employment.

The revenge/take-down they cook up is worthy of Repairman Jack.

Yeah, it's like that.

Sounds good, doesn't it?

Well, that's because it is.

Disclosure: the author was feeling generous on Twitter one day and offered to send a free ebook copy of this to whomever might be seeking something new and different. Ever such, I said meeeeeeeee. And I wound up so falling in love with this quirky craziness that I now definitely consider myself a Mark A. Rayner fangirl. And I want to read his other extant novel, The Amadeus Net, pretty soon. It apparently concerns a secretly immortal Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his exploits in the mid- to late- 21st century. Yeah, it sounds like that.

But so anyway, that's how you create fangirls, ladies and gentlemen. Here endeth the lesson.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

100 Books 69 - Maurice Broaddus' KING MAKER



Man, I was as ready to like this as I've ever been to like anything. I even put myself into full delayed gratification mode -- I was originally going to save this book as my prize for finishing NaNoWriMo (see prior post). But in that I failed; I made it maybe a week into this month before I just couldn't resist anymore -- such allure, a cross between The Wire and Arthurian Legend! -- and gave in.

But -- you feel that "but" coming, don't you? -- I'm sad to say this novel didn't quite live up to its initial promise.

This is half of a fan-damn-tastic piece of balls-out amazing fiction writing, and half a messed-up, cliche-ridden mess, more or less. The first half is the former, vivid and strange and gripping, tripping with lines of the kind of weird and heart-breakingly poetic imagery and observation that this Wyoming girl only gets to hear at 5am on Saturday mornings when her local public radio station gives it over for Snap Judgment. The legend of Arthur and the formation of his Knights of the Round Table feels like it really could be re-enacted in the sad ghettos of Indianapolis, though perhaps the rib-digging character names (King, Lott, Lady G, Wayne, Green, Dred) aren't strictly necessary. My jaw dropped. Often.

What Broaddus did with Merlin, here cast as a crazy homeless man shambling through the projects in a tinfoil hat to which he keeps adding layers, struck me as especially fine, for instance.

But once the characters are established and the world (about 90% drug-slum realism, 5% TV cop show fantasy version of that realism, 5% epic fantasy, except the magical sword is a pair of guns, etc.) is built, the book kind of collapses in on itself a bit, so that by the time the zombies (oh man, really? Zombies?) show up I was bored and disappointed and scrolling back to earlier chapters, wondering how these two halves got sewn together.

Origin stories always suffer a bit from the formula thereof, though, so I'ma give Mr. Broaddus another chance. I already have the sequel, King's Justice, loaded on my various e-reading devices. I really hope it's more like the first half of this one than the second.

We Did It!

Despite a busy writing docket full of seekrit projects (to which I've just, sigh, added another one, it seems) and scorching lateral epicondylitis in both elbows, I am a NaNoWriMo winner again in 2011.

I co-wrote a rather demented bit of redneck pulp sci-fi with my good friend and fellow Cheyennian, Colin Stricklin. We traded days of adding to the word count, with me providing the very first and last 1666 words (or so). We started the month with a vague set of ideas, many of which we kicked forward to future books (for of course this thing has crazy series potential), and only cooked up a plot to follow about halfway in to the enterprise -- though, I'm delighted to say, that plot was already taking shape within our daily contributions.

The really fun part was, since this was more or less word count driven, we each felt perfectly free to stop in mid-scene and see how the other would finish it, which meant we had a lot of fun leaving each other with tension-laden cliffhanger situations to resolve. This is the best part about collaborating, and why I recommend it to anyone, as long as it's two or more people who have similar goals, commitment and discipline, and senses of humor.

Though we're well over the 50,000 word mark, the novel is nowhere near done. I'm guessing there's roughly another 20-30,000 words to go on this first draft before the real fun of editing begins.

But for tonight, well, cheers, mates!

And special thanks to My Own Dear Personal Mom, Carol Sherrod (@Casherr on Twitter), who spent the last week with me helping me cope with my semi-handicapped state, combing my hair, helping me with some housework that I was behind on, keeping me company through a lot of crap and, most importantly, typing in my entries (which I'd written longhand, in very soft pencil, on graph paper, because I am a big dork and like doing it that way) so Colin could read them.

Woot!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

100 Books 68 - J. Daniel Sawyer's PREDESTINATION (AND OTHER GAMES OF CHANCE)



Well! There is genre-bending, and there is genre-bending, and the bending author J. Daniel Sawyer has done in this political thriller/crime noir/space opera/tale of revolution/double-cross extravaganza would require a whole new, possibly Lovecraftian, geometry to trace out.

Which is to say this is one of the most downright complicated novels I've read since... hmm... Game of Thrones? Yeah. It's like that. Except for no dragons. Or swords. Or horses. Or kings (at least not in name).

But yeah, Game of Thrones in space? A little bit. Except there are a whole bunch of people on the Moon, Mars and various space stations who are sick of being treated like chattel-colonists and aren't going to take it anymore (one of my favorite scenes is near the end, when a Lunar city erupts in exactly the kind of colorful and seemingly purposeless disorder that characterizes the Occupy Wall Street movement, proving that the movement has been incohate in the air for quite a while now), the one element that I think is most sorely missing in GoT.

So much duplicity. And orbital mathematics. And cool space colonization history. And duplicity. And scotch. And poker. And did I mention duplicity?

So much J. Daniel Sawyer, all that is missing is someone singing to an acoustic guitar in a heart-melting clear tenor. But it appears there are three more novels in this Antithesis Progression, so I may yet get some of that.

If you like any (or all) of the above genres Sawyer has bent here, you really pretty much owe yourselves to pony up the five bucks for this here ebook. If you want a dead tree edition, I think one's in the works, but why wait.

And if you're really feeling poor, well, Sawyer is one of those generous Podiobooks authors who offers his books as free audiobooks before they even hit the Kindle/Epub world.

Eyeholes or earholes, you can't lose here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

100 Books 67 - Jose Saramago's BLINDNESS



So it's now a toss-up between this and Cormac McCarthy's The Road in the contest for Bleakest Book I've Read This Year. Were it not for the ending, I'd say Blindness wins, and even thereby, it still kind of does. Which is saying something.

Interestingly enough, Blindness shares another quality in common with The Road: it's rather difficult to read, just in terms of the prose and, especially, the dialogue. Neither novel uses conventional punctuation or presentation for dialogue, but Saramago's work, at least as here translated by Giovanni Portiero, comes at us in great torrents, without tags or any warnings at all of a change of speaker. Hello, how are you, I'm fine, how are you, fine, thank you, where is the dog buried, over behind the cat's grave, ok, that must be what I smell, hey, I overheard you guys talking about a dog, I could sure go for one with catsup and mustard, no not that kind of dog you idiot, oh, ok, but I sure am hungry, why isn't there a food named for cats?

As you can maybe see from that made-up example, it's more or less possible to tell that more than one person is talking (I intended it to be three individuals - is that what you experienced?), and maybe even to tell, if you've outside or prior knowledge of characters' modes of speech or motivations, which character is saying what, but it's a whole lot of interpretive work that most of us American readers are unaccustomed to having to do, finding that the basic interpretive work of looking at skinny and repetitive designs in ink on paper, understanding them as words, and following the sequence of words as a story is quite enough, thank you.

But some books are worth the extra effort, and this account of a world in which first one man, then a few people, and then a whole bunch are suddenly struck with "white blindness" (in which the visual field becomes a field of complete white, rather than the blackness that we usually believe blindness to be), which turns out to be virulently contagious, and the horrors that ensue when first the afflicted are confined to a run-down mental hospital, and later when it turns out the whole city, perhaps the whole world, has gone blind, is absolutely worth that effort.

It is not, however, for the weak of stomach; if you are easily grossed-out by descriptions of serious squalor (as in what happens when a hundred of people or more are kept in a small space and can't find the toilets squalor), maybe give this one a pass. But if you're not that wimpy and want a seriously amazing read, don't pass this one by. Saramogo is a Nobel laureate for a reason.

Monday, November 14, 2011

100 Books 66 - Erin Morgenstern's THE NIGHT CIRCUS



I want Tarsem Singh to direct a film adaptation of this movie, STAT. And I need a red scarf, also STAT.

Singh because I think he would bring The Night Circus's vividly imagined sights and sounds (alas, no way to bring the smells as yet, in any way that isn't hokey and cost-intensive, I suspect) to eye-popping life, and I want to see them: unlike some readers, my mind's eye isn't all that clever. I'm a verbal girl. I mostly yawn through detailed descriptions of fabrics and color schemes and intricate designs, and can't be arsed to do the work of making them into pictures in my head. So, since said detailed descriptions make up the bulk of The Night Circus's pages, one might expect that I yawned through this book.

But I didn't.

I think what makes the difference is the writing itself, which is poetic and gorgeous in its own right, so I never yawned, and instead was filled with longing to actually see what was being described. I suppose that's my background in comics coming out (and indeed, if for some reason I don't get my film of this, I'd settle for a graphic novel, with, say, Christian "Infinite Vacation" Ward on art detail. Or Fiona Staples. With Dave Stewart on colors... Ahem).

Anyway, while this book is a little thin on plot (and what plot there is owes a lot to Christopher Priest's fantastic novel that was spoiled by its film adaptation, The Prestige, and maybe a bit to Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, too, and of course Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes if you drained out most of the wicked and just left the wonder), it's a treat to read, dreamy and evocative as hell and just the sort of bedtime story you'd want to read to your kids, if you want them to grow up to be art snobs.

I loved it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

100 Books 65 - John Mierau's ASUNDER: WAR BETWEEN WORLDS



Short version: a fun answer to the question of what happened to all of the bad-ass alien technology after the microbes took care of the aliens in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds with a nice, adventurous flair. Victorian reverse-engineering, pirates, sea battles, and tension within the ranks of Her Majesty's Armed Forces. Alas, like a few other self-published treats, the sweet comes with a little bitter: this could have used at least one more careful edit/proofread before it was released into the world. Lots of sentences are weirdly missing the verb, more than a few homophone errors have reared their ugly heads, and a few malapropisms, too. They're all the kind of errors a professional editor would never let slip by, but that a spell-check doesn't catch. If you're the kind of reader who gets too distracted by these, wait for another edition. But if you don't mind them, this is a fun and delightful read.

100 Books 64 - Trent Jamison's ROIL



Short version: God damn, Angry Robot is putting out some good, genre-muddling stuff. This one is part straight-up sci-fi (this world seems to be a settled, terraformed exoplanet on which something native and terrifying is fighting back against the terraforming), a dash steampunk (lots of clockwork technology, airships -- oh, but get this, the airships are ALIVE) and possibly a little bit fantasy, too (lots of malformed monsters, some of which kind of defy physics a bit and rejoice in baroque and bizarre names like "Hideous Garment Flukes", and also a quest that hangs heavily on an ordinary boy who turns out to be a very special boy and who is everybody's Only Hope). I found it wonderfully reminiscent of Alastair Reynold's last proper novel, Terminal World in lots of ways, which made me very happy. I tore through this thing in a matter of days and can't wait for the sequels. Hurry up, Trent!

Long version: again, will try to do an Audioboo. Cuz, even this much typing is ouch.

100 Books 63 - Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's THE 10,000 YEAR EXPLOSION: HOW CIVILIZATION ACCELERATED HUMAN EVOLUTION



Short version: No, humans did not stop evolving 10,000 or even 4,000 years ago. We still are, in lots of fascinating little (and big) ways. And sadly, no, not all people are created equal. As many of us have inherent biological advantages as disadvantages -- and some people have both all at once. Interesting read, but I am pretty much part of the choir Cochran and Harpending are preaching to.

Long version: will try for an AudioBoo later this weekend. Typing is still to be kept to a minimum.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

100 Books 62 - Henry James' PORTRAIT OF A LADY



Short version:  Boy, it sure do suck to be a lady.

Long version: in AudioBoo form because I am typing impaired due to continued elbow problems (now in both arms!).


Henry James" PORTRAIT OF A LADY (mp3)

Friday, November 4, 2011

100 Books 61 - Gary McMahon's DEAD BAD THINGS (D'oh!)



Dad gum it, I hate taking up stories in the middle. Which is what, it appears, I did in deciding to read this next ebook in my Angry Robot subscription. Which I didn't realize until I was considerably invested in the story. Which has me a little annoyed, but I can't really blame anyone but myself; I should have known by now that a lot of the ebooks magically coming to me every month were sequels, continuations, snippets of bigger stories.

Somehow I missed it this time, though.

That aside -- and it's mostly annoying because all of these ominous references to the series arc's overall hero, Thomas Usher, keep cropping up without any context for the reader who has just happened to stumble upon this title -- this is mostly a pretty satisfying bit of horror, gross and creepy and emotionally wrenching and did I mention creepy?

It took a little patience, though, to get through this. For most of the novel, the four storylines followed show no signs of having anything to do with each other at all and the reader must simply have faith that they will knit together at some point. This is common enough in fiction today and I would not normally remark on it, except that one storyline is told in the first person and the rest in the third. And for all but the last few chapters, I had no idea who the first person narrator was supposed to be. His chapters were interesting and evocative, though, so I at least sort of cared about seeing what the hell they had to do with anything. For most of the book, they were just a weird distraction from the storyline I really cared about, that of a young female policewoman who was having to deal with a lot of weird and possibly supernatural shit in her professional and personal life, supernatural shit that was well hinted at by a prologue that suggested how the other two third-person storylines might tie in with the policewoman's, but still left that first-person stuff (that I now, having finished the book and nosed around the author's web page, know to have been this Thomas Usher, he of the unknown importance and powers unless one has read the earlier Usher novel, Pretty Little Dead Things) unconnected but buzzing around like a mosquito that's too quick to swat.

Reader cluelessness aside, Dead Bad Things did come to a pretty fantastic climax, full of action and anguish and genuine horror. By the time all of this comes about, the reader is well invested in the policewoman's story and background; for me she was the protagonist throughout and I cared quite a lot what happened to her (though the revelation of who she "really" was left me pretty meh since I was apparently reading this book wrong. I should have taken a clue from the first person narrative of that other thread, yes; this is a(nother) book about this Thomas Usher dude and if I knew or gave a damn who he was I'm sure I would have been all kinds of emotionally invested in the policewoman's identity blah blah blah). Until the end when her story is hijacked by this Usher dude. Sigh.

I sound like I hated this book, but really, I didn't. The policewoman's story is really compelling and so it comes really close to standing alone on that basis. The fact that one can read Dead Bad Things as her story says something about it, and I liked it well enough to want to go back sometime (after this challenge, in which I'm insisting on every book coming from a different author, is over) and read Pretty Little Dead Things and find out what the big deal about this Usher dude is. I just wish McMahon had given me more about Usher in this one.

I'm sure, in retrospect, that this might be how people might feel coming upon a Doctor Who episode like "Blink" and being surprised to learn at the end that this is not a show about Sally Sparrow, adorable, spunky 21st century girl who has to battle creepy statues, but about some amazing time traveling dude who only appears in her story as a guy on TV giving her bizarre instructions. We who are/were in the know hail "Blink" as one of the best episodes of the DW revival, but people who'd just stumbled across this episode were probably a little annoyed and puzzled and it might be a crap shoot whether they'd bother with another episode.

I've just learned a lesson about my Angry Robot subscription: never assume that the ebooks I'm getting are stand alones. Always assume they are sequels until proven otherwise.

Because yeah, both of the books in this month's feed are third volumes of trilogies! So imagine how annoyed I might potentially be if I fell into this same fallacy again with them!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

100 Books 60 - China Mieville's THE CITY & THE CITY



The City & The City was the first book I ever pre-ordered for my Kindle. I had had abosolute faith in China Mieville's ability to entertain me and didn't feel like waiting for a pile of shoddily bound paper* to physically ship to me. I remember seeing copies in the wild at an airport bookstore in Baltimore on my way home from BaltiCon and sort of gloating that I already had it, I just needed the time.

That was over two years ago. I started to read The City & The City pretty much just as soon as I got home and unpacked, but its opening chapter, which sets the book up very much as a rather run-of-the-mill murder mystery/police procedural, did not grab me the way Mieville's other books had -- and I had come home with a pretty good haul of signed paperbacks written by friends, the likes of Philippa Ballantine, Tee Morris, Val Griswold-Ford, Nathan Lowell, Patrick McLean... and my attention strayed and never returned.

Then a few of my friends started reporting in that they'd been pretty disappointed with The City & The City (even though it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Hugo for best novel), and my slight enthusiasm fizzled.

Two years later I stumbled across the book again as I was belatedly taking advantage of the collections feature on the Kindle and sorting my considerable horde of ebooks into some broad categories. At first I pulled a face -- I had snagged and quickly read Mieville's follow-up to The City & The City, The Kraken, and had been more than disappointed; I had been actively displeased. But after having enjoyed Zoo City, which was this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, I remembered that the Clarke award, unlike some, is a pretty reliable guide for what I'll consider quality. Plus, I hate to have unread stuff that I've paid good coin for sitting around on my device, vulnerable to deletion should I start running up against storage problems. So I took it up again.

Am I ever glad I did!

Yeah, the first chapter is pretty rough going. It's a bit old-hat, even if the hat being tried on might be Dashiell Hammett's. But I forged on through it, and quickly remembered that old hats can look quite dashing on the right guy, and when the guy in question is basically acting like the mutant offspring of Hammett and Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka and Robert Musil, well, I'm in.

Because as is often the case with things I like (and sometimes things I write), the rather ordinary plot is not what's important. It's just a narrative thread to follow through the labyrinth of an extraordinary world. And when all that is done right, the ordinary plot turns out not to be all that ordinary, but to be entirely sui generis because it is a product of that extraordinary world, and its central questions and mysteries would never even come up outside that world. Which makes The City & The City in part a kind of thought experiment, that produces some fascinating results.

What's Borgesian about it is this unique world, which is very much like our contemporary post-millennial existence, except in that somewhere in eastern Europe there are two independent city-states that occupy the exact same physical territory. Besz is a somewhat drab, Kafkaesque, 1950sish, Prague/Budapest-ish place; Ul-Quoma is slightly more modern and brightly colored -- which is to say there is a striking visual and cultural contrast (they even each have their own language, though how different those languages really are becomes a bit of a puzzle as the story progresses). But the two cities are in the same place! To a degree the reader is allowed to imagine them as sort of gerrymandered around each other by means of squiggly borders, but there is also a lot of overlap -- crosshatching, as it's termed. So one's apartment building in Besz might be abutted on either side by Ul Quoman buildings but, get this -- everyone in the two cities is trained from birth (I imagine a process very like prolonged sessions of hypnosis; since no outright magic ever occurs in the novel, I can find no other likely explanation for how the "unperceiving" that is central to the characters' existence goes on) not to notice the people, the fixtures, the buildings, the traffic, of the other city, so the dweller in that Besz apartment building "unsees" the Ul Quoman flower shop next door. Sometimes he might walk down the street and see someone ambiguously dressed, only perhaps to hear a word or two in the other city's language and abruptly and assiduously edit that person from his consciousness.

The only way to visit the other city is to go to the vast government building that is universally agreed to be part of both city-states, endure some red tape, and leave again -- often walking down the same street by which he approached, but now perceiving only the new city's features. If he walked up a street in Besz, he now sees that street in Ul Quoma. It is and isn't the exact same street. Ow, my brain.

It all sounds more than a little looney, doesn't it? Like a population of lunatics somehow agreeing to live in this ludicrous way... for hundreds of years. And this separation is rigidly enforced, of course, by a terrifying, shadowy entity known as Breach. Breach disappears anyone who is caught looking at, talking to or in anyway acknowledging the coterminous Other; he or she is never heard from again.

Against this bizarre backdrop is played out a murder mystery that takes on positively ontological connotations, starting with a big conundrum: was the person whose murder our protagonist is investigating dumped in Besz or Ul Quoma? And in which country was she killed? And was her killer a Besz or Ul Quoman? So even before the means, motive and opportunity of traditional murder mystery can be established, a lot of weird detective work has to happen.

And since this is China Mieville, who can't leave socialist/revolutionary politics alone, writing, there's plenty of that woven into this story, too. For instance, in both cities are groups who want to put an end to this two cities nonsense and get everyone to stop being ridiculous and admit that there's really just one city there (and they have a good point; driving in a city where half the inhabitants aren't "really" there but can still step in front of your car or sideswipe it with their cars would be a nightmare -- to say nothing of the mental strain of constantly having to edit out half of one's surroundings all the damned time. And to what end? Why  is this so? Nobody seems to know. It's just the way it is. Shut up or Breach will take you away).

There is, too, a weirdly historical/archaeological component to the milieu Mieville has created here. The murder victim was a scholar, unearthing artifacts from a time before the cities split (a time which they refer to more often as "Precursor" than "Pre-Cleavage" because even in the languages of Besz and Ul Quoma -- awesomely Borgesian name, that -- the latter sounds vaguely anatomically naughty), from a world that seems still to have been weird -- one arresting artifact is a lobster claw embedded with some clockwork parts -- and brought to this Bas-Lag fan visions of that tremendously weird steampunk-and-sorcery city, New Crobuzon, as though perhaps that city had perhaps degenerated and then split into Besz and Ul Quoma. Hey, it could be so. Right, China? Fans? Anyone? I can't have been the only one who thought of that as I read!

So yes, the world of The City & The City is all quite a fascinating idea, with shades of the divided city of Berlin before the Wall fell, with hints that some lunatics might take as the ideal solution for the Israel-Palestine problem (oy). And, unlike Borges, who would have thrown it out there in a lazy short story and left the rest as an exercise for the reader, Mieville has done the exercise with a thoroughness -- maybe even a mania -- that most of us would never bother expending on something so goofy.

The result is a weirdly engaging read that I wound up tearing right through (metaphorically speaking, since it's an ebook).

*Really, modern hardcover publishing should be ashamed of itself. Where's the craftsmanship? Where's the respect for people who want to have and keep a nice object that happens to contain cherished content in a durable, heritable form? Rubbish! OK, rant over. It's hopeless. With the exception of some small press holdouts like Tyrus Books, and Dark Overlord Media, who are still trying.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bog Help Me...

It's all SennyDreadful's fault. Lord, I love that woman, but right now I want to reach across the pond (she lives in London) and shake her till her pearly whites rattle.

OK, not really. No one -- especially not a kooky gal in another country -- can make me do anything I don't want to. But I did, in a fit of sympathy and fellow-feeling, promise her that I would again endure the insanity that is National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. Starting on Tuesday, Nov. 1, I will strive to add at least 1666 new words to the very rough first draft of a brand new novel. I have a very vague idea of what it's going to be about, but no outline or snowflake, no cast of planned characters, no set ending in mind. No plot, no problem, is how NaNoWriMo works, or, as my good friend Jason Erickson has famously (because I made him famous for it) characterized it "Keep writing crap fast!"

I have won NaNoWriMo twice -- won meaning I have, in fact, gotten 50,000 words down within the month of November. The first novel/novella may be irrecoverable, though maybe someday I'll find a way to retrieve files from the moribund original tangerine clamshell iBook I wrote it on back in 2000. The second has morphed/warped into a giant seekrit project that maybe someday I'll be able to disclose to you -- a few of my closest friends know about it -- but now that it's a collaboration involving at least three other people, well. Yeah.

So I go into NaNoWriMo 2011 with a light heart. I know I can do it. I've done it before and lord knows I have enough ideas. But here's the thing.

I have a lot of other projects I need to be working on, too. One of which is seekrit but is going to be awesome (and yes, it's another collaboration; I'm addicted to collaborating I guess), and another, well, my publisher pulled the trigger on the publicity website for it this summer: Omi & Lulu. And those are just the serious for-sure projects. There are others. Like a script for a budding filmmaker buddy of mine. And two epic poems. And other stuff that's probably slipped my mind right now because I'm on weird pain meds.

For yes, I'm still having lots of trouble with my left elbow, trouble that renders me all but a one-armed woman while the damage heals.

Insert one-armed paper hanger references here.

So honestly, I'm not going to sweat it if I don't win NaNoWriMo this year. But I promised my gal Senny, and a few other friends who are gearing up to go into the trenches, that I'd at least give it another try. Because it's good to barf out that terrible first draft and just see what's right and what's wrong with my idea. And because misery loves company. And because November feels weird without it.

I'm K8E over there if anyone wants to add me as a writing buddy. Good luck, NaNos, and hey you non NaNos, you can do it too; it's not a show!

Monday, October 24, 2011

100 Books 59 - Ernest Cline's READY PLAYER ONE



"The past, she thought, was like glue. No matter how far you thought you had moved on, it kept you stuck in one spot." - from Gary McMahon's DEAD BAD THINGS

It's perhaps odd of me to quote from the book I took up after it in writing about Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (Dead Bad Things will likely be book number 60, unless I get a wild hair and tear through the rest of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady this week), but then again, it's odd and a bit startling to run across a sentence in the next book that so very aptly captures my feelings about the former.

I can't remember the last time I tore through a book this fast, but even as I was, on the whole, enjoying it, something kept bugging me: for all the fun it offers -- for all the fun it offers, Ready Player One is actually kind of a depressing book.

Stick with me here.

As anyone who's read the blurbs knows, Ready Player One concerns a dystopian near-future in which most of the world is utterly consumed by a contest to find the ultimate easter egg in a giant, sprawling combination MMORPG/Second Life/Web X.0 computer generated universe called the Oasis. The player who finds the prize wins not only that creator's immense personal fortune but also control of the company, which means, effectively, control of the World As We Know it circa the post-oil 2050s*. With stakes like those -- and the world otherwise being a blighted, miserable, static place (as in every major city now having giant sprawling exurbs full of nothing but vertical trailer parks -- trailers stacked via makeshift scaffolding into huge structures like skyscrapers -- full of refugees from the smaller cities that have collapsed economically and socially in this new energy crisis) -- this game has pretty much taken over the collective everything.

And here's where the sad really gets to me. Because the game is all about the creator, Halliday's, pop culture obsessions. And he's an old fart in the 2050s -- meaning he grew up in the 1980s. Which means everyone in the 2050s is spending all of their time in goggles and haptic gloves studying up on 1980s pop culture. Most of which, let's face it, wasn't really very good. You who are nostalgic for it are only remembering the highlights. Sit down and watch an episode of Family Ties. Or Silver Spoons. Now imagine that your best and only shot at a halfway decent future is playing a game which, in part, requires minute knowledge of that crap. That the knowledge base also includes good stuff like Star Wars and Monty Python and Zork may make it seem palatable but... ugh.

We who are part of Halliday's generation, who were teenagers in the 1980s, already have had a taste of what that is like. Growing up in the shadow of the Baby Boom, we had 1960s culture force fed to us constantly. And a lot of us just went ahead and embraced that 60s nostalgia -- ersatz tie dying, affected preference for that era's music and politics and mores over modern stuff and all -- at the cost, to some degree, of our development of our own culture. Hence crap like Family Ties.

But so now we have a world beset by real problems -- energy shortages, staggering poverty everywhere except for a few tiny pockets, rising sea levels, polluted air, crime, darkness, horror -- and everybody is avoiding this by immersing themselves in a virtual world fixated on the 1980s. Minutely studying John Hughes movies. Deconstructing Thundarr the Barbarian. Memorizing Superman III.

In its defense, one of the competitors in Ready Player One wants to use the staggering load of money at stake to save the world (as opposed to another, who wants to use it to build a spaceship and go find us another planet, thus saving humanity as a concept but leaving billions behind to stew in the filth of generations), but she still has to win the game to do so. All other planning is on hold while the best minds of the current generation re-enact War Games.


All that sad subtext aside, though, Ready Player One is a fun, fun read. I am absolutely its target audience, and was utterly absorbed in the urgency of the plot -- for it's not just about game play, this story; it's a struggle for the future, with our plucky protagonist fanboys pitted against a giant, evil corporation who wants to take over Oasis and commercialize the hell out of it, privatize it, wall it off, monetize its user data -- sound familiar? So even though it's far fetched that our plucky fanboys and fangirls could save the world with Halliday's money, I still bought in to the notion that their quest had meaning in that they were trying to keep the world from getting even worse.

Plus, yes, it would be fun to get to play King Arthur in a meticulous re-creation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For great justice.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

100 Books 58 - Seth Harwood's JACK PALMS II - THIS IS LIFE

Damn, but I think Seth Harwood would be a lot of fun to drink with. Ditto for the character that first made Harwood famous, Jack Palms, washed-up action movie star, sometime hustler, trouble magnet, and, in this, his second adventure, the guy the San Francisco cops turn to when things seem too dirty for them to handle (which means, in case you're wondering, that things are very dirty indeed).

Get a few beers or scotches in either one and I bet you're in for an evening of wild-ass stories. They might not be totally plausible stories, but they'll sure as hell be entertaining.

For this second Jack Palms outing, Harwood works more explicitly with a conceit that was only subtly present in the first one, Jack Wakes Up: that an actor, more or less playing a role, can stand in for the real thing when he has to. In Jack Wakes Up, though, Jack was playing a movie star, trading on his fame and what goodwill movie fans still had for him after his time in the tabloids (drug addiction, public ugliness with a pretty wife, etc.) to smooth the way for a complicated drug deal that wound up going wrong. He winked at bouncers, flirted with bartenders, showed the out-of-towners a good time in San Francisco, and juked his way out of crisis after crisis, all the while trying desperately to hold on to his hard-won health and sobriety.

This time around, though, Jack is having to play the role he played in his movie: a rough, tough Dirty Harry type. He has to act like a cop. And he gets in way over his head. As the title says, this is life: the guns, the bullets, the criminals and corrupt cops are all real.

I'm not sure I buy the premise that San Francisco's finest, even when desperate to exact justice/revenge for the death of one of their (corrupt) own, would resort to having a has-been actor* take the case when their hands get jurisdictionally tied, but I wound up not caring about that too much as I got sucked in to another intricate, messed up, tough, violent and shocking tale -- mostly, as always, by Harwood's care with the language. This is a guy who wants to get it right, a craftsman with his prose, and doesn't this reader appreciate that!

Harwood takes care, too, to keep us in Jack's head: he's an actor playing a role, and he's not firing blanks this time; the fights have not been choreographed, his dialogue has not been scripted. It's all improv, baby -- and sometimes Jack doesn't really know what to do, which verisimilitude (and again, craft in conveying it) more than makes up for the far-fetchedness of the premise that's landed him where he is. "This is the time, as he sees it, and there's nothing to do but act on what's here."

Plus, well, the action. As in prior books, the action is intense and incredible, and again, reminiscent of a good video game, complete with characters tossing away depleted weapons and taking up new ones. Jack winds up wielding every kind of firearm imaginable before the book is done, with varying degrees of success -- and quite a body count!

Now. Here's the interesting bit. As I mentioned in a prior post about Harwood, this guy is more than a bit of a maverick. He gives away his fiction first, in the form of free audiobooks over at Podiobooks, and releases it as ebooks and paperbacks later. This post of mine concerns the original ebook version of This is Life, but very soon, via a wonderfully successful Kickstarter campaign (and you'd better believe it, I'm a backer), a brand new edition of the book is coming out. And I'll be reading that new version -- and all the other stuff Harwood has in the pipeline -- just as soon as it lands in my greedy little hands. I'm a Palms Momma for life.

And the funny thing is, before I encountered Harwood, I didn't read crime fiction!

*Though as William Shatner says in a certain recent song, "Has-been... might again!"

Friday, October 21, 2011

100 Books 57 - Cullen Bunn's CROOKED HILLS



Crooked Hills is one of those great rarities in this world: something that almost makes me wish that I had children. Almost.

Written primarily for the sort of precociously goofy (or perhaps, goofily precocious) middle school kid that is the age I like best to spend time with when, e.g., substitute teaching or hanging out with friends with kids, Crooked Hills has a lot of grody, spooky charm to recommend it. Our young protagonist, Charlie Ward (whose middle name I really hope is actually Dexter), on a forced vacation from Chicago to a tiny town in the backwoods that is purported "the most haunted in America" quickly gets over his city kid snit and develops an enthusiasm for the slimy, shadowy, legend-riddled hometown of his country cousin that is infectious and fun to read.

Soon he is knee-deep in mud, pine needles, folklore and fetch hunting; the sighting of a possible ghost dog with eerie "human-like eyes" sends him, cousin Marty, little brother Alex, and slingshot-toting tomboy pal Lisa on a hunt after not just a ghost but a witch's ghost. Along the way they encounter more mundane hazards (like a pair of neighborhood bullies) and make an interesting study of the intersection of folklore and fact, all the while re-enacting the style of Marty's beloved Hardy Boys books (with the adrenaline cranked up to 11).

What makes this for me is Charlie's narrative voice. He is precocious but still believable as a smart, curious kid who is still susceptible to a good fart joke or a well-placed can of tarantulas. He has a strong moral center and his genuine concern for his little brother is often very touching; he is also personally courageous as he demonstrates over and over again. Were I a parent, I would feel good about having a kid who wanted to be like Charlie.

I was hoping this book would be a good follow-up gift for my little friend who so loves Brand Gamblin's Tumbler but alas, I think it might be too scary for her. Bunn's background in writing for comics means every chapter ends on a hair-raising cliff-hanger that keeps the reader turning the pages but might give some more delicate sensibilities a bad case of nightmares. If you or your little ones enjoy a good goosebump-raiser, though, this is definitely for  you.

But don't be surprised if everyone in your house takes to screaming "I bury all your cows!"

Monday, October 17, 2011

100 Books 56 - Guy Haley's REALITY 36



Man, it's been a while since I've gotten to dig into some good old cyberpunk. I'd almost forgotten how much I enjoy it.

That's not to say that Reality 36 is cyberpunk, precisely -- it strays a bit from the classic Gibsonian high tech/low life scenario -- but Gibson and the genre he spawned are an influence woven proudly into the nanowired smart fabric of the virtual sleeves of Haley's 22nd century gumshoes, the ex-military cyborg, Otto Klein and his AI partner Richards. They owe a bit, too, this pair, to Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs. But they're their own men, er, entities, er, sentients. And damn, are they ever cool!

The nature of the case they're on as this novel unfolds is not clear for a lot of it. Lots of narrative threads spin out independently of each other both in the real world and in a virtual world that used to be a game but is now, along with all the others, set aside as a sort of ecological preserve; the detectives' ultimate quarry-cum-client is the guy who originally led the legal/political battle to liberate and establish civil rights for artificial intelligences (who by the 22nd century have become sophisticated enough to achieve sentience), aka Neukind, not only in the ordinary human world but also in those game worlds. It's a crime, he has persuaded society, to create intelligent, thinking and feeling life, solely for the purpose of being hunted for sport in games. That's right: in this world, all those zombies/boars/evil wizards/Nazis we so enjoy mashing buttons to mow down are citizens, yo. And have a right to live out their own lives in whatever weird world they've found themselves in.

That's just one of the many intriguing ideas and issues Haley tackles in this novel -- but it never gets preachy or thinky or overly philosophical. Otto makes sure of that (lots of explodey action bits; a film version in the 80s would definitely have Arnie playing him -- hey, Otto's even got a German accent!), and so, in his way, does Richards, possessing, at one point, a barely sentient forklift (the Internet of Things plays a satisfyingly big role in this plot as well) in order to rescue his buddy after he's blundered into a trap. A smart and resourceful and refreshingly matter-of-fact female co-protagonist, Veronique (and her sidekick/phone, Chloe) rounds out the main crew and ties the whole story together very neatly. Too, Veronique provides the console cowboy edge every good cyberpunk yarn needs; she spends a lot of the novel hooked up to an IV drip-and-catheter in the Real so she can hunt down the mastermind in one of the game worlds alongside a pair of the aforementioned liberated game AIs. It's all very complicated and glorious.

And of course, Richards and Klein, Security Consultants, is going to be a series. I got a bonus short story about them included with Reality 36 in my Angry Robot ebooks subscription and a proper sequel is slated for publication next year. BRING IT ON!

Friday, October 14, 2011

100 Books 55 - Victor Pelevin's HOMO ZAPIENS



I love Victor Pelevin, but I somehow managed to miss this one when it came out. I only learned of its existence because a film adaptation premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year under the title Generation P. The film blew me away and was my favorite from this year's festival and I promise that soon I'll get around to writing about the rest of the films I saw there; for now, suffice it to say that Victor Ginzberg's film adaptation was magnificently faithful to a novel that was begging to be a film from the first page.

Homo Zapiens -- the title refers to a theorized new, devolved form of human being whose thoughts and reactions are largely governed by the television, even if, maybe especially if, what he's mostly doing is zapping to avoid commercials -- is Pelevin at his most gleefully nihilistic as he surveys the chaos that was Russia in the 90s. Not since The Exile: Sex Drugs and Libel in the New Russia have I seen this milieu so vividly depicted: blatant corruption at all levels of public and private life, gross materialism and drug abuse, vodka and cranky mysticism, all wrapped up in the Russian version of How to Get Ahead in Advertising; had hero Babylen Tartosky sprouted another head I would not have been surprised. But Pelevin has other, crazier ideas to play with, here.

Like the idea that at some point the mass media stopped reporting the news and started making it up -- even to inventing the politicians, who only exist as artfully computer-generated animations and carefully seeded urban legends (a cadre of ordinary-seeming ex-soldier types has the job of planting stories of seeing, e.g. Yeltsin or Berezhovsky in a grocery store or walking down the street). It's unclear whether or not we readers are expected to take this idea as true for this fictional world, or as just another whopper his co-workers and employers have laid on for Babylen's confusion or edification, and it's one of the amazing things about this novel that it ultimately doesn't matter if the reader believes it or not, if Babylen's superiors believe it or not, or if Babylen believes it or not.

Which is to say that Homo Zapiens, novel and film, messed with my head in all of the ways I most like having my head messed with. But if you're not familiar with the real world that inspired this phantasmagorical fake (or is it? Hmm?) one, do yourself a favor and have a look at The Exile, either the book I linked to above, or look at some of the archived "classic" issues from its original run as one of the bitchiest and most profane alternative newspapers the world has ever seen. Doing so will not only enrich your experience of reading or watching Homo Zapiens/Generation P, but will also give you a unique and completely compelling look at the  world through the eyes of "two hairy-assed jerks" who had front row seats to watch the chaos, cannibalism and cockery of the collapse of the world's last great empire.