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Mythbusters and keep Wikipedia open, because there is an irritating amount of myths, massive oversimplifications, and outdated material.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.
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!]
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:
- The totally stereotypical Gay Best Friend™.
- 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.
- 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.
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…
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