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.

What I’m Cooking

Close-up photo of a shiny red candy apple on a plate.

Candy apples! My friend G. and I made them before, and there were some ingredients left over so I made a batch by myself. I used this recipe and it was fairly easy, though preparation and waiting for the candy mixture to heat up takes a lot of time, and you have to watch it like a hawk or else it’ll burn. Things we had to get specially: candy thermometer, corn syrup, sticks.