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
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.
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.