What I’m Reading, #8

Milorad Pavi?, Dictionary of the Khazars (1984, transl. 1988)

Yeah. I read it. Liked it well enough, and have absolutely nothing to say about it. Possibly because the return of my long-running sleep problems (unable to get to sleep till quite late, then sleeping for twelve hours) has made it unable to sustain intelligent thought, focus on work, or muster up any genuine enthusiasm. I think I am faking it decently, though; it terrifies me how little people would think of me if they knew how stupid I really was.

The Khazars, by the way, are very interesting…

What I’m Reading, #7

Terry Pratchett, Nation (2008)

Nation is the kind of book that is delicious to read, but has a nasty aftertaste. It’s set in a nineteenth century different in several respects from ours. (For one, most of Australia is apparently underwater; the Pacific Ocean is the Pelagic Ocean; North America is known as the “Reunited States”; there’s no Queen Victoria, but there is a King, and he’s just died in a flu epidemic raging across Europe.) Mau is a young Pelagic Islander man — or rather, he would be a man, if a giant storm hadn’t wiped out everyone else on his island right before his initiation ceremony. But, as the ancestral spirits tell him, as long as he lives, the Nation lives, and so he begins rebuilding a society with an ever-growing number of survivors who land on the island.

The first of these is Daphne, an English girl who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck, and so there’s a lot of incredibly conventional “prim, sheltered young lady learns to live a little” stuff. There’s also the tiresome “sheltered white person meets brown people for the first time and learns that their fellow white people are the real savages!” thing. And then, of course, there’s the really overplayed conjunction of the two, all served up with a heavy helping of Terry Pratchett’s trademark Dreadfully Twee Capitalization.

It’s still a good yarn — I read it in a single sitting, I laughed, I cried, there’s a decently “deep” theodicy subplot — but the smug back-patting we’re all nice white people here factor only increases, culminating in an plot resolution that completely destroyed the story’s believability for me. Spoilers ahoy. Continue reading What I’m Reading, #7

What I’m Reading, #5-6

5. Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008)

6. Walter Mosley, Futureland (2001)

A pair of grim post-cyberpunk dystopias, impressively fleshed out and featuring multiple narrators representative of near-future Cape Town and near-future black America, respectively. (Futureland, published in 2001, actually opens in 2004, but never feels dated. Moxyland, on the other hand, with its faintly twee fictional brandnames and references to BoingBoing, may not age as well.)

Best, for varying values of “best”, idea from Futureland: White Noise, the underclass of permanently unemployed Americans who live in a dismal honeycomb of cells called Common Ground, cut off from the economy. From Moxyland: crowd control that involves exposing the crowd to a highly degenerative but non-contagious virus, thus requiring everyone to turn themselves in for a vaccine.

Come for the interesting, if dense, political and technological extrapolation; stay for the characters. In Futureland we meet, among others, an indomitable woman boxer competing with men, a prisoner who hatches an escape plan under the tightest surveillance imaginable, an assembly-line grunt promoted to a life too good to be true. The standouts in Moxyland are a young photographer turned corporate guinea pig and a scrappy rich kid dabbling in political subversion. But be warned—nobody gets off easy. The future, as it turns out, is very unfriendly.

What I’m Reading, #1-4

I’m going to start counting how many books I read in a year. Pretty sure this is the first batch of 2011.

1. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?

Three generations of a cursed Dominican-American family—matriarchs, runaways, rebels, and the titular nebbish, all in the shadow of the dictator Trujillo—as seen through a shimmering veil of nerd references. I know I use this word too lightly, but this book is epic.

2. Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary, Better To Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril (2002)

Judith Merril is an intriguing figure partly because she was central to very exciting things as they were happening—the New Wave of science fiction, Toronto in the 60’s, Rochdale and draft dodgers and all that; her personal library is now a venerable TPL collection. But she was also a fascinating person in her own right: forceful, opinionated, and intensely political. I came away feeling like I would very much like to have met her.

3. Connie Willis, Blackout (2010)

Blackout is really the first half of a complete novel, and I hope they eventually publish it along with All Clear as a single volume. Willis returns to the setting of “Fire Watch” at the top of her game. As Oxford’s time-travel program grows increasingly hectic, several historians find themselves stranded in London during the Blitz. It seems that there may no longer be anything preventing time-travellers from altering key events in the past—which raises the question, is there still a team in 2060 to bring them back? So many questions! So many holds on library copies of All Clear! The suspense is deliciously unbearable.

4. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972)

A good number of these cities appear in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, which I once owned, so reading the book itself at last feels like finding a travelogue for some dreamy, beautiful country I passed through years ago, or maybe only visited in a dream—mysterious and familiar at the same time. Favourite cities: Armilla, Eutropia, Leandra.

What I’m Reading

A couple of Canadian authors from the last library haul!

Minister Faust, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (2004)

Don’t let the barrage of science fiction references (from Watchmen to 90’s DS9-vs.-B5 debates to John M. Ford Star Trek novelizations) fool you. This is urban fantasy, inspired by the clubs and comic-book shops and grimy underpasses of Edmonton, Alberta as well as the myths of ancient Egypt and Sudan. Our heroes are a couple of socially-conscious nerds: Hamza, a failed English major turned dishwasher, and Yehat, an engineer who’d rather work in a video store than sell out to the Man. They get dragged into the hunt for an ancient magical artifact that also has something to do with the powerful drug known only as cream and also taking over the world and some sinister Norse cult.

The characters I really liked, however, were the exquisitely and hilariously depicted douchebags (and there’s a lot of them in this book). Ex-jock Dulles Allen, “TRIVIA DEXTERITY: NHL/CFL +100/+200, ALIGNMENT: Son of a bitch (certified level 12)”; the spectacularly pretentious and WASPy Meaney brothers; pompous steampunker Digaestus Caesar (the kind of guy who says “Zounds!” and “my good fellow” in daily life). This list is by no means exhaustive.

With its breakneck pace and dizzying array of perspectives, Coyote Kings is a little reminiscent of Snow Crash…but Canadian and considerably more intense. What more do you need?

Karl Schroeder, Lady of Mazes (2005)

I really, really wanted to like this book—not so much because of the ringworlds and spaceships, but the pervasive augmented and virtual reality. In this far future, everyone can tailor their perceived environments, creating distinct societies that are invisible to each other, and call up a host of virtualized friends (or their simulated stand-ins). Cool, eh? But the problem with such a radically different setting is that it’s difficult to understand. To our eyes, it would look like magic—a world of sorcerers and gods. It’s hard to explain the science without turning the book into a dry, boring infodump, which was what Lady of Mazes was to me. (The convoluted plot didn’t help.)

For example, here’s the character Aaron meeting a messageboard acquaintance for the first time:

…the elevator doors opened and Veronique stepped out.

There were six of her. All greeted Aaron warmly, in minutely different ways. He’d been warned about this aspect of his new friend: she maintained numerous artificial bodies, and flipped her sensorium between them at will. Those bodies not currently inhabited by her were run by the Archipelagic equivalent of animas.

Every page is like that. The exposition never lets up. Schroeder mitigates a bit of it with fantasy shorthand: individual life-support systems are “angels”, simulated assistants appear as fairies, there’s a posthuman who’s referred to as a god. But it’s not nearly enough. I’ll be glad to return this one to the library.