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.


*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?*


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


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.