What I’m Reading, #24-26

#21-23 will take a little while longer to write up.

24. Samuel Delany, Babel-17/Empire Star

I like my Sapir-Whorf hypotheses like I like my coffee: very strong!…no? Tough crowd. What I like about Delany is how central poetry and song and storytelling are to him. Poetry doesn’t seem really important nowadays, at least to me. You can’t make a living as a poet or anything. But in Delany’s stories (and maybe especially in Babel-17) poetry is vitally relevant. Rydra Wong, as a poet, can see the world in a different and valuable way, and her work makes a tremendous difference to people.

I liked Babel-17 well enough but preferred the convoluted timeline of Empire Star, which follows a boy coming of age and ascending in consciousness, and in which there’s fewer characters than first appear to be.

25. Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

In a postapocalyptic Sudan where magic coexists with (sparse, deteriorating) technology, a “child of violence” is destined to reshape her society. Brutal and uncompromising. Fills my head with vivid unearthly colours. The prose could be better, but it gets the job done.

(I have many more thoughts about this book, but they’re kitchen-table thoughts, not impersonal-Internet thoughts.)

26. Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda

Enjoyable but not terribly memorable. Miles solves a mystery while he and Ivan are on a diplomatic mission to the heart of the Cetagandan empire, which is ruled by a genetic elite—ruled, in turn, by women working behind the scenes. I laughed out loud at “I don’t think it was ripe, Ivan.” I wondered if Bujold even knew about epicene pronouns.

One interesting aspect is how Miles uses disability stereotypes to fly under the radar—or, if you’d like, cover his ass:

“You would have taken the investigation away from me, you know you would have, sir. Everyone in the wormhole nexus thinks I’m a cripple who’s been given a cushy nepotistic sinecure as a courier. That I might be competent for more is something Lieutenant Vorkosigan would never, in the ordinary course of events, ever be given a chance to prove.”

Sadly, the library system has only one copy of the next book, Ethan of Athos, so it seems that I’m not going to be continuing the series for a while.

What I’m Reading, #18-20

Philip José Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)

This came in an omnibus edition with the next Riverworld book, The Fabulous Riverboat, but I disliked TYSBG and felt no compulsion to read on. It’s got a delightfully cracky premise but also a barrage of the crassest and most worn-out stereotypes imaginable, plus an unengaging hero (the Victorian explorer Richard Burton, who may carry a romantic, adventurous air for some, but for me just exemplifies imperialism, Orientalism and basically everything I fucking hate about the era). And I hear the series goes downhill, so yeah. It kills me to return a library book unfinished, but sometimes it’s justified.

Stephen Jay Gould, The Lying Stones of Marrakech (2000)

Collected essays, mostly dedicated to exploring various episodes from the standard boring-white-guy history of science with unusual nuance. Gould takes special care to debunk standard narratives of scientific progress, emphasizing that scientific breakthroughs are just as much a matter of shifting preconceived worldviews as making new observations. (In fact, the most radical discovery may still be overlooked or misinterpreted if we are overly constrained by our conceptual frameworks.) Among many other things, he examines Galileo’s colossal misinterpretation of the rings of Saturn, how Lamarck came to embrace a model of common descent, and the various cases held to be examples of observable evolutionary change. He also discusses the interplay of science and social issues in eugenics, chemical warfare, and cloning. There are weak bits—some incongruous obituaries and blurbs, his own prejudices and Baconian “idols”, etc.—but in general I think this is a must-read. I can’t help but feel that if Gould’s subtle, gently subversive, and self-questioning approach, not Dawkins’s harsh reductionism, had taken root in the public mind, the world would be a much better place.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

The other night in a dream I found myself in the rain on a city street in an unfamiliar part of town, around midmorning, with an appointment at least a few hours away. I had this book in my bag, a lot of change largely in toonies and loonies (the easier to spend on frivolities), and nothing to do till my appointment—the perfect pretext to sit in a café having tea and pastries and reading. Then I realized that, since I did not want to loiter but had a lot of time to kill, I could go to another café afterwards. Multiple cafés! (In the dream and out of it, this is the purest, most delicious indulgence I can think of.)

My appointment got postponed, and postponed, and I came to feel that I had no need to rush. So I set off through the grey drizzle of an eternal weekday midmorning to sit by the window in an infinite series of cafés waiting for an appointment which might serendipitously never arrive, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and drinking tea forever.

It was like a Kafka story, but with a happy ending. It’s too bad I don’t have more dreams like that.

What I’m Reading, #12-17

12. John Scalzi, Old Man’s War (2005)

Thought I’d re-read this, as Tor.com readership recently voted it best of the decade. I don’t think it’s nearly that good (especially compared to contenders like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Blindsight), but it’s funny, poignant, and almost consistently enjoyable — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t normally touch military SF (aside from Bujold).

13. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

You can tell I’m getting close to exhausting the library holdings when I start dipping into its meagre stock of popular science books. Bryson is an entertaining writer, but geeks won’t learn anything new here. I would recommend this book as a starting point for people who have never taken a science class, ever, even in public school — with the caveat that they watch a whole lot of Mythbusters and keep Wikipedia open, because there is an irritating amount of myths, massive oversimplifications, and outdated material.

14-17. Scott Westerfeld, Uglies (2005), Pretties (2005), Specials (2006), Extras (2007)

Tore through this YA dystopian series set in a city-state where everyone is beautified and promoted to a life of carefree luxury on reaching sixteen. Through the hero, a teenage girl named Tally, we get a whirlwind tour through various social classes: insecure young Uglies, rebellious runaways, vapid Pretties, the covert ruling class of Specials. Extras portrays a “reputation economy” a little like the one in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, but actually done well. The big reveal at the end of the series is totally bogus, but it’s a well-established genre tradition, so I can hardly nitpick.

The Uglies books are especially interesting for a couple of reasons. First, while most dystopias are portrayed as more or less immutable thought-experiments, throughout the series we see Tally’s society changing quite radically in response to inside and outside pressures. The story also deals extensively and unusually thoughtfully with themes of the body, dis/ability, “nature”, and medicalization.

What I’m Reading, #11

11. Kelly Link, Gavin J. Grant, eds., The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (2007)

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet sounds like the title of a middling Belle & Sebastian album but is in fact a small-press zine of what you could call slipstream: quirky, weird, wistful fiction on the fringes of sci-fi and fantasy. This anthology contains not only fiction and poetry but also playlists, drink recipes, and an exhaustive list of teas from the “LCRW kitchen”, and the tone varies from creepy to romantic to twee. Actually, maybe it is the Belle & Sebastian of sf.

I enjoyed so much of this anthology that it’s easier to list what I didn’t like. I’ll just say that I am thoroughly bored of dark, sexy, modern retellings of fairytales or well-loved children’s stories and the like. Shoyn genug! [Enough already!]

What I’m Reading, #9-10

9. Gail Carriger, Soulless (2009)

Alexia Tarabotti, a “preternatural” young woman—born without a soul, and thus capable of neutralizing supernatural powers—teams up with a handsome aristocratic werewolf to figure out what’s menacing London’s vampires. Extremely enjoyable, self-aware fluff.

The few annoying aspects:

  1. The totally stereotypical Gay Best Friend™.
  2. The portrayal of Alexia as some kind of social outcast. Don’t tell me she’s undesirable and unattractive, then turn around and show me men falling all over her.
  3. The strains of the world’s tiniest violin at nearly every mention of her Italian heritage. Being an olive-skinned European in fashionable Victorian society is hard, guys.

10. Greg van Eekhout, Norse Code (2009)

A modern-day Valkyrie sets off to make amends for sending an innocent to Helheim instead of Valhalla, and ends up trying to stave off Ragnarok. Decent (and how often do you get to read about a Mexican-American Valkyrie?), but I couldn’t help but feel it would have been a much more interesting book if the story had started a few years earlier. As the lead-up to doomsday, it’s been winter for three years, there’s mass societal unrest, and everyone’s about to realize that the Norse were right all along—great scenario, right? But we don’t get to see any of it, and it’s not really reflected in the main characters’ backstories, either. (I’ve gotten a lot pickier about end-of-the-world stories; blame a steady diet of Slacktivist.)

There’s also a very hasty, shoehorned-in and wholly unconvincing romance, as if someone realized at the last minute that you can’t have an urban fantasy novel with a tough young woman wielding a bad-ass weapon looking over her shoulder at the viewer on the cover without some kind of romantic subplot. It could’ve been improved on with a few cosmetic touches, or alternately it could’ve been taken out entirely with no damage to the actual plot.

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.

What I’m Reading

These three books were published together as Young Miles (1997); Warrior’s Apprentice and The Mountains of Mourning are available from the Baen Free Library.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Warrior’s Apprentice (1986)

After spectacularly failing the military entrance exams, Miles creates his own mercenary company out of chutzpah and sheer bullshit. Far-fetched almost to the point of contrivance, as a caper should be. A cracking good read except for a few bits that I expect will always make me cringe. (I’m thinking of the treatment of a non-binary-gendered minor character here, who is referred to with a quaintly bigoted term and dehumanizing, if not outright hostile [and thankfully rarely used] pronouns. I know it’s ignorance, not malice, but still.)

Warrior’s Apprentice had some very dark parts, of course, but it’s hard not to be carried along by Miles’s “forward momentum”—an irrepressible confidence that he can talk his way out of (or into) anything.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Mountains of Mourning (1989)

But it’s a twisted poor world we were both born into, that rejects us without mercy and ejects us without consultation.

I confess that as I read this novella, in which Miles is sent out to the backcountry to investigate the murder of a disabled newborn—I was dreading that it would go an entirely different way. Can you blame me? Eugenicist sympathies pervade even the most genteel liberal milieus, in our world and even Bujold’s half-parodied, half-idealized Beta Colony (where parents require permits to have children, and disabled fetuses are routinely aborted if they can’t be made “normal” with galactic-standard medicine). Which is why I was both relieved and frustrated by the end, where Miles proposes that a primary school be founded in the hill-country, because a little elementary education will end centuries of infanticide—and more importantly the motives for infanticide. Really?

Lest anyone think I’ve stamped a giant red “PROBLEMATIC!” label on the entire Vorkosigan saga and am boycotting it from here on out—well, no. I think Bujold’s treatment of disability is extremely interesting thus far, the failures and successes alike. For example, the discrepancies between her depictions of physical and mental disabilities are thought-provoking. And that the series is centred around a disabled hero and thus issues of ableism, disability, and the body take centre stage is remarkable in its own right.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Vor Game (1990)

After graduating from the Imperial Military Academy, Miles gets a posting on a remote, frozen island to learn subordination. Instead he ends up getting arrested for mutiny, then sent off to regain control of the Dendarii Mercenaries and avert an interplanetary war. (And rescue a very important hostage and outwit a villain nearly as fiendishly manipulative as himself.) Enjoyable, but I couldn’t help feeling that the MilSF-style cozy murder mystery The Vor Game was shaping up to be would have been just as fun.