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, #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…