As a relatively new climber (i.e., as of this writing, I've been climbing about 7 months), I found that this was a good introductory text to keep arouAs a relatively new climber (i.e., as of this writing, I've been climbing about 7 months), I found that this was a good introductory text to keep around. Granted, climbing is not something you really want to read-then-do; think of the reading as a good supplement to your training and climbing.
I enjoyed how Luebben dives right into the material; he keeps the introduction short and then goes immediately into the science and sport of rock climbing. He writes in a colloquial style that is easy to digest and presents the material in a way that makes it seem like a conversation. It's like it's you and him out on the rock, Luebben telling you everything he needs you to know.
While the book's focus is definitely on outdoor climbs, Luebben emphasizes techniques that should easily transfer to indoor rock gyms. Especially early in the text, Luebben writes a lot about body and foot position, how to approach routes and problems, and the mental elements of rock climbing. While these techniques are typically discussed in an outdoor context, the lessons all easily transfer to whatever surface you're climbing.
For a new, mostly indoor climber like myself, there seemed to be a lot of material in this book that either didn't apply to me or served merely to whet my appetite for outdoor routes. If you're looking for something specific to indoor climbing, you're probably better off exploring Matt Burbach's [title:Gym Climbing] book. Still, even a mostly-indoors beginner climber will find the chapters on body position, footwork and hand-holds, knots, belaying, and bouldering to be useful....more
I would suggest, dear reader, that when considering Consider the Lobster, that you consider it in the same light as David Foster Wallace's collectionI would suggest, dear reader, that when considering Consider the Lobster, that you consider it in the same light as David Foster Wallace's collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Use that book as your frame of reference for style and content and you can place this collection firmly into the category of "typical" DFW. That being said, if you thoroughly enjoyed A Supposedly Fun Thing... then you'll likely thoroughly enjoy this one as well; by that same coin, if you're on the fence, you're unlikely to be won over; and if you dislike DFW† then this collection will probably do you no favors.
So in this reviewer's opinion: Consider the Lobster is more of the same. But that's a good thing.
One thing that CtL has over ASFTINDA is that it reads like an essayist's equivalent to a DJ's mixtape. While the essays individually are more than capable of standing on their own (e.g., apart from each other; i.e., in their original printings) they are arranged in such a creative way here that they build upon each other. The essays are vaguely self-referential, perhaps purposefully so; "jokes" from a given essay may rely heavily on you properly "getting" and then retaining the thesis of a preceding essay. I submit as an example: "Authority and American Usage" contains several sections that are slightly humorous in their own respect but can only be truly appreciated as bracingly so when you recall Wallace's thesis on Franz Kafka's humor from the prior article and the accompanying explication of said humor and why it is thoroughly pointless to try and explain any joke anywhere, let alone Kafka's absurdly dark and probably pathological comedy††. In this way, CtL may be Wallace's finest collection to date; the interleaving of the essays, their strength when taken as a whole, an obscurely surreal recursion. It's really all quite expertly done.
Perhaps the highlight of this collection is the maturity that Wallace is showing. Previous collections have his tone and style coming off as a bit of an effete intellectual, a nerdy-but-hip smartest-kid-in-class tone that is simultaneously masterfully humorous and maddening. Like maybe he's just trying to make you feel dumb but then again maybe it's thesaurial sleight-of-hand to play into some particular joke. Which is not at all to suggest that he has discarded this completely. But maybe like he's toned it down a bit†††? His signature style is definitely still there but he seems to have grown into it, it's a better fit. Whereas before it may have felt borderline confrontational (see above), it comes across now as disarming. For example, in the midst of "Authority and American Usage", Wallace comes across (on the one hand) vaguely condescending of SNOOTs†††† and then on the other hand admits to being one; and then he takes a deeper dig on SNOOTs by eviscerating their essays and articles and other writings (e.g., the heavy-handed and jargon-laden "worst ever" publications of Comparative Lit profs) by using the very same over-the-top vocabulary to get to that point†††††. The whole routine can be a little jaw-clenched maddening but is for those same reasons endearing and worthwhile.
It is also seems worth mentioning that Wallace masterfully frames pretty grand subject matter in all kinds of tangential and frankly genius-like-a-mad-scientist ways that it's formidable and a bit frightening. Example: Wallace uses "Authority and American Usage" as a vehicle to discuss linguistic politics and the critical role of socialization, language learning, and regional dialects on individual growth and development††††††. Example: Wallace uses his coverage of McCain2000 in "Up, Simba!" to discuss the political brokerage through media outlets and the bizarre power dynamics at work between journalists, politicians, and their handlers†††††††. Example: how Wallace goes to work on the ethics of food in "Consider the Lobster", working through the logic rather elegantly and then stupefyingly relinquishing it all with the atavistic admission that that simply isn't enough to tear you away from the desire to enjoy something delicious. In light of all this, it's no wonder an aspiring author Such As continues to find himself enthralled and intimidated by this literary Cronus.
Parting shots? I have two: the first regarding my "four of five" rating and the second a mere sidebar.
First: though the tone in CtL shows a refreshing maturity and welcome evolution, and though every essay is engaging and timely and brilliant, there also seem to be moments of tedium. Perhaps this is expected and unavoidable. But an essay on a book on the life and times of Dostoevsky (e.g.) can disappoint. Abandoning the F.N. format for a House of Leaves-esque series of drawn boxes is more distracting than textually informing (even if the essay's content is exhilarating and terrifying). And maybe it's just me but "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" seemed (via the text) a parody of itself as much as it was a parody and/or review of the book in question.
Second: while I don't believe that these kinds of things, should matter, I'm also of the opinion that Wallace should have fired the photographer. Or perhaps chosen a better photo from that particular shoot. I realize that folks may want their book jacket photos to be relatively current, and I realize that our bodies change over time, and all of that is fine; but I also wonder if his publisher could have perhaps insisted that they find a photo that did NOT make him look like a squinty-eyed and slightly slumped Jeffrey Lebowski. Seriously sir, that's your credibility at stake here.
------ † = If you truly and I mean honestly and passionately dislike DFW, well then I suggest some rigorous therapeutic interventions.
†† = Which is totally drained of its humor when you try to offer any kind of explanation. I offer as further evidence for this that (after a protracted bout of laughing) I read aloud (to A.) a passage from "Authority and American Usage" and how it's humor is underscored by the thesis of the Kafka essay to which A. offered scarcely an acknowledging chortle.
††† = Maybe?
†††† = Just read the essay.
††††† = I mean seriously: do you know anyone to drop "solecistic" in casual conversation?
†††††† = Compare/contrast with similar arguments posited in Freakonomics.
††††††† = Let it also be known that this becomes painfully apparent when the essay's title appears in the text. It's a real head-slapping moment with a kind of chilling aftershock....more
If asked to write the foreword to some 20th anniversary commemorative edition, I would say that Max Barry's Jennifer Government is like a bottle of DiIf asked to write the foreword to some 20th anniversary commemorative edition, I would say that Max Barry's Jennifer Government is like a bottle of Diet Neal Stephenson served with a twist of Christopher Moore (or perhaps a dash of Tom Robbins?) There is something uncannily similar between Snow Crash and Jennifer Government: in the comic book pacing; in the hyperbolic and impossible but chillingly familiar geo-political climate that he illustrates; in the characters that reek of auto-erotic caricature and yet are so well-drawn, so believable and sympathetic and damn plausible. You can see Y.T. dropping out of school because of girls like Haley McDonald's. You can see NRA franchises competing against La Cosa Nostra in the burbclaves. You can imagine Hiro Protagonist sub-contracted by Jennifer Government to fend off Violet ExxonMobil. You wonder how the milieus of these novels aren't linked.
But even if you haven't read Snow Crash, even if you aren't making those comparisons, you will find this one wholly enjoyable. It has an immediate start, thrusts you headlong into the story-already-in-progress but makes sure to catch you up just as quickly. And it never loses this momentum. The chapters coming at you fast (each about 3-5 pages) and are fairly dialogue-driven. Before you know it, you'll find you've burned through 100 pages. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING. The narrative draws you in, the prose gets out of the way, and the characters encourage you to get invested.
Borderline 5 star review. There is a whimsy to this tale that draws on a lot of familiar dystopian capitalist tropes (e.g., the libertarian anarchy of free market capitalism run amok); it borders on cliche but doesn't quite cross the frontier into hackneyed territory. That it gets that close, that the prose taps its toes on cliche's fences is where we lose the fifth star in the rating. But that the narrative goes there so unabashedly, in all of its over-the-top banality -- *that* is a beautiful thing....more
In a nutshell? Uttal is arguing that the modern imaging technologies (e.g., fMRI) are toys used by cognitive neuroscientists that are following theirIn a nutshell? Uttal is arguing that the modern imaging technologies (e.g., fMRI) are toys used by cognitive neuroscientists that are following their theories and using these subtractive methods to come up with supporting data for what is otherwise intractable. In other words, much of modern cognitive neuroscience is on a fool's errand because we really don't even have a working definition for what "thought" and "mind" are and so how could we possibly hope to match up its specific component parts and processes with specific brain regions?
This is a highly technical text, to be sure. (Example: Uttal will throw out a term like "physiological psychology" in contrast to "cognitive neuroscience" without defining the two for differentiation. You are expected to know.)
The underlying thesis here is not that neural imaging is in any way bad or wrong, it is that many researchers are using these techniques in such a fashion that they have not stopped to adequately define the terms they are using or the questions they are asking. Uttal states repeatedly that there is no hard scientific evidence that the brain can be componentized or modularized; he suggests that these localization attempts are futile. (A striking example he gives is how subtractive fMRI was used to provide "evidence" of a "face recognition center" in the brain but how that same brain area showed the same kinds of activation when "recognizing" cars or birds or pictures of places.) Uttal's arguments can be difficult to parse because of their highly nuanced nature; that there is structural specialization within the brain is well-established for many things -- but those "things" are sensory or motor in nature and have no reflection on "cognition". He asks repeatedly: is "cognition" even something that you can define? And if you can define it, is it something that you can measure experimentally? Is cognition directly observable? Or are we limited to observations of cognition's artifacts? Its descendant behaviors?
The book is rigorous and technical; ultimately rewarding but certainly not something to approach casually. (But then again, it is targeted at scientists.)...more
In Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem gives us science fiction's worthy successor to Raymond Chandler. Though this is the easy take-home messIn Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem gives us science fiction's worthy successor to Raymond Chandler. Though this is the easy take-home message from nearly every quoted newspaper columnist, book jacket blurb, and miscellaneous reviewer -- they also all happen to be right. Even a cursory familiarity with Chandler's pulp noir will ring through with startling clarity to readers of this novel. The cadence of the narrative, the hard-boiled dialogue, the archetypal characters... Lethem's Conrad Metcalf is a well-executed Philip Marlowe cover song with just a little bit of record scratching thrown into the background for texture.
On the other hand, those same columnist quotes, blurbs, and reviewers all seem to liken Lethem to Philip K. Dick. Personally: not seeing it. It's a bit of a stretch, some optimistic name-dropping to match up Lethem's mystery/noir heritage with some similarly classic science fiction antecedent. The ubiquitous drug use? Sure, okay -- that's a bit Dickian. A Möbius fold of reality unraveling around the narrator in some palpable and thoroughly eldritch fashion? Not so much. More than PKD, the scenes in this novel played out in my imagination as fearfully symmetrical to Cronenberg's take on Burroughs' Naked Lunch -- substitute Jim Henson-esque "evolved" animals for Mugwumps but otherwise that's it, right down to Peter Weller as Conrad Metcalf.
Or maybe Punk's review has got it down: "It's Blade Runner meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
Where was I? Oh right...
A part of me desires to do a chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the text, to get all scholarly about it and run the blockade of Chandler's lineage here. I want to look for the hidden significance of the doctors as urologists, to get semiotic on names like "Catherine Teleprompter" and "Danny Phoneblum". But instead I'll just give a positive nod. It's a fun, noirish scifi romp with all the right moves and delivers slightly better than expectations.
UPDATE: Upon second reading: holy crap I didn't realize just how bleak that ending was, the first time around. Just the way that Metcalf's whole world collapses around (despite his... success?) and how he takes his exit.
I would be willing to say that Max Brooks has given us a "new classic" of zombie literature in World War Z. The nove**spoiler alert** Where to begin?
I would be willing to say that Max Brooks has given us a "new classic" of zombie literature in World War Z. The novel is well-structured, is well-paced, and seems so ... plausible.
And when I say "plausible", I mean the Brooks has tried to carefully -- though not necessarily exhaustively -- look at the current geopolitical climate and imagine what a sudden "zombie" outbreak scenario would look like today or in some tenable near-future. Brooks makes what seems to me to be a sincere effort to leave no logistical stone uncovered: how does the plague spread? what are the consequences of a government cover-up? what about the navies and submarines? what about satellites and GPS? how do you "quartermaster" an army that is on foot going up against "the undead"? He tried to cover all the bases in as realistic a way as possible. Considering such an unrealistic scenario. Again: Brooks is not trying to be exhaustive but considering where he puts his focus, he certainly comes across as inventive. He gives us some sadistic twists throughout the narrative; for every up-lifting deus ex machina near-miss (e.g., Col. Eliopolis and "Mets Fan") there is some grim and ironic counterpoint (e.g., the slaughter at Alang's ship breaking yard). Wisely, Brooks tries to keep these stories diverse: military and civilian; American and Chinese; young and old; optimistic and jaded. He does not waste a great deal of energy discussing "Zack"; there is no in depth technical discussion of the virus -- just a few allusions to methods of transmission (those bites) and then we move on to what matters. That is where Brooks keeps the focus: it's on how people -- be they individuals or entire governments -- react to these extreme scenarios. And he does a decent job peeling the peach of the technological modernity while he's catapulting us through this tale.
Two closing points:
(1) Brooks is also graciously humble. He cites George A. Romero in the acknowledgments; can't get far with your zombie mythos without giving the right credit.
(2) This novel had but one thing keeping it from a full five star rating: many of the voices are not really distinct. We are presented with the novel as if it were a historical document -- the transcripts of interviews with survivors from "World War Z". But reading it, you can't help but think that the government official sounds an awful lot like the feral child that sounds a lot like the retired Indian army grunt... But don't let that stop you: there is plenty else in this novel to warrant reading it.
UPDATE: * Almost forgot... Did anyone else catch the thinly veiled Colin Powell/Howard Dean administration in there? I'm like 88% on the thinly veiled Powell and approximately 111% on the thinly veiled Howard Dean....more
A tightly themed, well executed collection: Wastelands captures our apocalypse fears and fantasies equally well and sometimes even simultaneously.
AdamA tightly themed, well executed collection: Wastelands captures our apocalypse fears and fantasies equally well and sometimes even simultaneously.
Adams wisely chooses Stephen King's "The End of the Whole Mess" as an opener and moves into all manner of exciting territory from there. Wastelands is the expected mix of strong (and some average) short stories; most of them have a high re-read score and there is an good mix of diverse ideas and themes that keep within the central focus.
THAT SAID: if you are considering this one, read the introduction before you make the purchase. This isn't about zombie plagues or alien invasions or black holes ripping through our space-time continuum. This is about somewhat more plausible apocalypses. Even when they're totally unexplained.
Most of these stories I enjoyed as much as I expected (e.g., "Speech Sounds") and some less so (e.g., "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth") and some more so (e.g., "Salvage"). I won't enumerate the themes you expect in an apocalypse-themed collection; they're all here and they're all in full force. I will remark on the following, however:
* I was a bit amused by how many of these shorts featured nomads; ** and more so by how often those nomads were of the carny folk variety. * The stories seem to be pretty "current" in their bio-engineered plagues and their genetic fall-out and their post-Peak Oil crises and 9/11-kneejerks; the last star in my review would have been earned by but one thorough and explicit treatment of WW3-ish nuclear winter. * Remember: you brought this on yourself.
Rated Individually: • "The End of the Whole Mess" (Stephen King) ★★★★★ • "Salvage" (Orson Scott Card) ★★★ • "The People of Sand and Slag" (Paolo Bacigalupi) ★★★ • "Bread and Bombs" (M. Rickert) ★★★ • "How We Got In Town and Out Again" (Jonathan Lethem) ★★★★ • "Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels" (George R. R. Martin) ★★★★ • "Waiting for the Zephyr" (Tobias S. Buckell) ★★★ • "Never Despair" (Jack McDevitt) ★★★★ • "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" (Cory Doctorow) ★★★ • "The Last of the O-Forms" (James Van Pelt) ★★★ • "Still Life with Apocalypse" (Richard Kadrey) ★★★★ • "Artie's Angels" (Catherine Wells) ★★★★ • "Judgment Passed" (Jerry Oltion) ★★★ • "Mute" (Gene Wolfe) ★★★★½ • "Inertia" (Nancy Kress) ★★★ • "And the Deep Blue Sea" (Elizabeth Bear) ★★★ • "Speech Sounds" (Octavia Butler) ★★★★ • "Killers" (Carol Emshwiller) ★★★★ • "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" (Neal Barrett Jr.) ★★★ • "The End of the World as We Know It" (Dale Bailey) ★★★★★ • "A Song Before Sunset" (David Grigg) ★★★ • "Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers" (John Langan) ★★★★...more
2014 update: most of the original review still stands. The only thing I'd add is (1) that it's way more sexist than I remember; also: (2) the free-wil2014 update: most of the original review still stands. The only thing I'd add is (1) that it's way more sexist than I remember; also: (2) the free-will stuff is terribly interesting. So -1 star for #1 but +1 for #2. We will hold steady the rating at 4 for now, partly out of sympathy for the classics.
Many reviews (from the dazzling to the dull) have been written about this scifi classic, so I'll keep mine short, sweet, and personal. And that means I'm writing it for Fogus:
This novel has earned its stripes as a scifi classic, no doubts there. The narrative ages well but it shows its age; that's not to say that it's dated but there is something that feels a bit retro in its construction when viewed from 21st century lenses. PROS: interesting story that moves along at a pretty good pace; a couple of core "big" ideas that make up the core and don't compete with other narrative mechanics (e.g., the Ringworld itself gets a thorough enough treatment vs. FTL travel is a given and taken for granted, the way it should be); though there aren't any big shockers, a few cards are played close enough to the chest as to maintain some of the surprises toward the climax. CONS: some characterization is maybe a bit flat (esp. females?); not all of the "big" ideas are fully realized nor do they all neatly dovetail; the cover on this edition isn't the best.
SIDE NOTES: (1) Now I need to read Shakespeare's "The Tempest" for some compare/contrast action; (2) anytime you join four characters in a setting like this, in a plot like this, I can't help but conjure up parallels to The Wizard of Oz....more
"...but it is also true, if this brings her any consolation, that if, before every action, we were to begin weighing up the consequences, thinking abo"...but it is also true, if this brings her any consolation, that if, before every action, we were to begin weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probably, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt."
Never felt myself particularly captivated by this particular novel. Nothing about it grabbed me and aside from the quote above, nothing about it really resonated with me. Perhaps it was the style -- the incredibly long paragraphs full of improbably long sentences, the dialogue interspersed throughout, Like so, different speakers connected by commas, Like so. Not as hyper-extended as Marquez, but that was the rub that I got....more
In my mind, Chris Genoa is some experimental plant hybridized in an Army research lab -- a little Warren Ellis pollen sprinkled onto the pistil of theIn my mind, Chris Genoa is some experimental plant hybridized in an Army research lab -- a little Warren Ellis pollen sprinkled onto the pistil of the Christopher Moore blossom. The experiment yields fruit but they're not taking it out of the greenhouse lab quite yet; perhaps further cross-pollinating it with the rare Tom Robbins tree? Time will tell...
As for Foop!: time travel is one of science fiction's oldest and therefore toughest tropes. Choosing to accept this assignment (in a poetical sense here) for his first novel shows some cojones on Genoa's part. And if you can get past the prurient and at times puerile patches of prose, Genoa has given us an interesting, quirky story with a latent sub-text of alienation and despondence. But the exposition for this sub-text seems few and far between and when it does emerge, it lists toward those same prurient/puerile passages. After a while, it just gets gratuitous.
But the novel has a great opening chapter. And Genoa is wise to tip away from strictly happy endings.
ALSO: unrelated to the story itself but a few notes on the physical properties of this book: (1) Could have used a better editor (e.g., "Ok" vs. "OK" (vs. "Okay"?); e.g., "affect" vs. "effect") (2) Typesetting is pretty bad (e.g., inexplicably mixed font sizes; e.g., there's an ordered list that has all kinds of just wrong hanging indents...)
Haiku review: How can you expect a happy end in a book where Hitler still reigns?
Review: Though a bit slower to start than I expected, Farthing was (overaHaiku review: How can you expect a happy end in a book where Hitler still reigns?
Review: Though a bit slower to start than I expected, Farthing was (overall) an outstanding allegory on fascism disguised as an alternate history novel disguised as a murder mystery. By the time you're about one-quarter to one-third of the way through it, you will have trouble putting it down. The attention to the language is excellent (though I found myself pining for a bit of Irvine Welsh-style slang and cockney) and author Jo Walton pays peculiar attention to certain banalia like apparel, cooking, and eating.
The narrative structure follows a curious A/B pattern with odd chapters written 1st person (as Lucy Kahn) and even chapters written 3rd person (as Carmichael). It falls into a good rhythm that helps to control the pacing and the various reveals.
Walton's use of the alternate history platform seems to be a device to cast the setting of the murder mystery. The chapters that follow Carmichael have a nod to the classic pulp mysteries (I'm thinking Raymond Chandler) and honor those tropes such as re-hashing the events of the crime and narrating through theories about that crime.
One thing I feel disinclined to comment upon is the plausibility of this alternate history. Walton gives an oblique nod to Philip Roth's novel, The Plot Against America that makes me suspect that if Roth's alternate post-WWII world "works" then the story presented in Farthing could be grafted onto that timeline equally well. My knowledge of the WWII-era politics and military history run a bit thin however and I am hesitant to render an enthusiastic "it could have happened". That said, there is a bit of fearful symmetry between Farthing and the post-9/11 United States; this seems especially the case as you race through those last fifty pages telling yourself that it will be all right, that there is still a chance for a happy ending, even as you turn into the last chapter....more
**spoiler alert** After reading The Algebraist, I was going to swear off Iain M. Banks for the rest of '08. But, Ginnie recommended it so highly tha**spoiler alert** After reading The Algebraist, I was going to swear off Iain M. Banks for the rest of '08. But, Ginnie recommended it so highly that I felt it was worth bumping up the list.
I can definitely see why she gives it such praise. It's a dense, nuanced story that explores the motivations for terrorism, throwing that into sharp contrast against what it means to love another, reciprocating entity. Even if that love becomes cancerously deep and pathological? Of course, the story is also a clear allegory for U.S. involvement in the Middle East (as indicated by the dedication) though it could just as easily refer to any "more advanced" culture dabbling in the interference of some perceived-as-less-advanced culture.
To that latter statement: Banks seems careful not to overly vilify the "Othered" group here. The Chelgrians are not monsters; they are not lawless nor are they barbaric. They are in fact a highly complex, very technologically advanced (certainly by 21st century Earth standards) species with a millennia old cultural tradition that has recently been through some major turmoil. Just by chance they happen to encounter The Culture; and just by chance The Culture's intervention throws the Chelgrian social order wildly out of balance. And in the aftermath of the precipitate Caste War, even The Culture comes forward with some apologetic hand-waving.
If anything, Banks goes out of his way to "properly" paint The Culture as wanton aggressors. The Chelgrians just happened to be the victims. And yet it's not all of Chel that seeks revenge. Just a handful of militant zealots -- apparently with the backing of some more sophisticated parties.
Where Banks takes this for an ending is shrewd and sly and a manifold of tragic. Oh, there's a bright note at the end that attempts to resolve on a hopeful note. But mostly the denouement is a subtle jab that says: "In war, we are all childish."
For those nit-picking over the rating: it was close to 4-stars for me. If I could, I would have given it ★★★½. I found the story a little slow to start and Banks' style a bit exaggerated. I'm not sure if the novel would have worked as well without the narrative being constructed the way it was but sometimes I found the prose got in the way of the story. (On the other hand, the behemothaur sections were perfect.)...more
I have been a fan of Iain Banks' fiction for a few years now. Ever since reading The Wasp Factory, I have been among those that counted him among theI have been a fan of Iain Banks' fiction for a few years now. Ever since reading The Wasp Factory, I have been among those that counted him among the ranks of interesting, inventive, and perhaps even important living novelists.
Prior to The Algebraist, I had not read any of Banks' science fiction. It was then with a great deal of anticipation that I picked this one up at the library. I had enjoyed The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road so much that certainly his "M." branded science fiction must be equally exemplary. Imagine my surprise as my enthusiasm waned and waxed and waned again throughout the reading.
Right away I was struck by how the language seemed... Stilted? Over the top? I knew going into this that the novel was a space opera but ... why so operatic? The style seemed to overwhelm the substance for about the first 100 pages. I had an idea of what was developing but it flipped seemingly at random between times, places, and voices; I had an inkling that the stage was being set but it took me a while to care.
By 25-30% of the way through the story though, it gains some serious traction: the style gets out of the way and lets the story shine through, you feel OK letting yourself get invested in the events, some of the characters start to really pop and come alive. YOU GET TO MEET SOME DWELLERS. And this momentum gets going and stays pretty strong. But you have some nagging worries in the back of your mind: is "The Style" going to come back for revenge? Wasn't there an important-seeming character or two that fell off the radar a while ago? Am I going to remember who he/she is? Will I care? And sure enough, some tedium creeps back in and you find that you feel like you missed the best part because you zoned out.
But then the war starts. And the style gets out of the way again and the pace starts to clip along really fast. And that feels great. And the read gets fun again. But you'll find yourself waiting for a twist that doesn't come. (Or it does but you realize that it came and went already and the only thing you thought was: "That? Duh, that's given away on like page 9...")
Ultimately it's a fun read. A bit tedious at times but still a fun, deep space opera with some interesting hooks and a few compelling sub-texts....more
This book is incredible. It's easy to read and full of useful tips. As a novice gardener, it helped to make the planting/sowing process a lot less intThis book is incredible. It's easy to read and full of useful tips. As a novice gardener, it helped to make the planting/sowing process a lot less intimidating and has helped me to actually yield some fruits. Having shown the book to some more experienced gardeners and getting their feedback as well, this really does seem to be the best overall book for organic gardening....more
Though Snow Crash will probably remain my all-time favorite Neal Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon might take the crown as his best.[†:] As I write thThough Snow Crash will probably remain my all-time favorite Neal Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon might take the crown as his best.[†:] As I write this review, I wrapping up my third reading of this novel.
BRIEF ASIDE REGARDING THE TIMING OF THIS THIRD READING: It is probably worth noting my mental state when I cracked the spine on this one for the third time. Stephenson's Anathem had just come out and I could not quite bring myself to drop the cash on the hardcover. But I was overwhelmed with the urge to read some Stephenson. Given the the brutalizing that the U.S. economy was taking (according to the news) right about this time, it therefore seemed apropos to read something that involved economics, crypto, currency, libertarianism (and flaws of same), and safety/security.
END OF ASIDE AND RETURN TO REVIEW THAT IS REALLY MORE LIKE A BUNCH OF RANDOM DISCONNECTED OBSERVATIONS:Cryptonomicon manages to do a good job of not feeling terribly dated even nine years after its release. The cutting-edge laptops in the narrative still seem pretty fancy; the issues all continue to feel pertinent and relevant; the only thing that seems to set it in a particular time is an off-hand reference to "the Power Rangers" pretty late in the story.
It holds together well all these years later and is a great exemplar of Stephenson's hyperbolic style and how well he wields that style for explanatory power as well as humor.
What Stephenson does masterfully here is to create an interesting story for nerds (esp. crypto nerds) that has a thinly veiled coming-of-age sub-text lathered onto a character that we (at first) don't think needs any maturation.
I am talking (of course) about Randy.
If you don't figure this out by the time you get to the "Pulse" chapter then you have some explaining to do. We (the readers, the nerds) are thinking that Randy is a grown-up because we (1; as grown-ups) identify with him at the outset and (2) he has all the trappings of a grown-up such as (a) a beard, (b) a girlfriend of 10 years, (c) a business plan, etc. But the Randy we start with is little more than a bearded child running away from his commitments (i.e., his career as a university sysadmin and his relationship with Charlene (though, given the circumstances described in the prose, citing the latter is probably not fair to Randy) to play with his friends (e.g., Avi, Tom Howard) and their toys (e.g., high-tech laptops, GPS receivers). We get the first hint that this late-stage coming-of-age is going on when Randy shaves off his beard to discover a grown-ups face underneath. From there it's a pretty steady sleight-of-hand unfolding through the narrative which is really quite rewarding. (Hence taking the crown as Stephenson's best.)
Granted, there's so much more going on in the novel than just Randy; we could also consider Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe, Goto Dengo, or Enoch Root[‡:]. But Randy is probably the best place to center.
------ † = At the time of this writing, there is a pretty broad swath of Stephenson unread by Y.T., namely all three in the Baroque Cycle and the brand new Anathem.
‡ = Root in particular fascinates me because (if what I've heard is true an he does in fact appear in Stephenson's Baroque Cycle) he seems to share a few traits in common with Tolkien's Gandalf (doubly interesting because Stephenson's Randy calls Root a "Wizard" in the Tolkien sense), Weis/Hickman's Fizban, Arthur Miller's "Old Jew", etc. I'm thinking that there is a whole taxonomy of characters to explore here of which Root is one.
**spoiler alert** Quote: ...I think I'd probably tell you that it's easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers t**spoiler alert** Quote: ...I think I'd probably tell you that it's easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers than it is to accept the love and loyalty of the people closest to us.
There is an odd surface tension here; some readers may approach Idoru from the wrong bias, through the lens of Neuromancer and the Sprawl trilogy. Those readers will expect the traditional cyberpunk romp of amphetamine-fueled Yakuza battles and twisted violent sex in coffin hotels; those readers will be disappointed and may not be able to penetrate the skin of this charged, deeply emotional book. Idoru is William Gibson's Through the Looking Glass.
In typical Gibson style, the dueling narratives follow two distinctly melancholy characters: there is the starry-eyed teenaged angst of Chia Pet McKenzie and the existential, nearly Phildickian dread of Colin Laney. The novel opens on Laney, recently terminated under dubious circumstances from his "quantitative analyst" position for a tv program called Slitscan; Laney has a rare gift that enables him to tease patterns out of seemingly random data and he is recruited by a Japanese company to come to Tokyo and perform some research on their most valuable asset -- a rock star named Rez. Meanwhile, Chia is sent to Tokyo by her friends in Rez's Seattle-based fan club to discover the truth about The Rumor -- that Rez intends to marry a software construct, an idoru called Rei Toei.
Without a close inspection of the text, the novel might appear energetic but thematically trite. The plot moves along at a brisk pace: trans-Pacific flights whisk our protagonists into a Japanese Wonderland, quick-cut flashbacks fill in their respective histories, malicious and unseen maneuvering keeps every last character on his or her toes. Gibson drops his customary tropes: seedy back-alley deals gone awry, a detailed but ultimately vague send-up of "cyberspace", a mischievous and emergent AI...
But this book has nothing to do with AI or cyberspace or seedy back-alley deals.
At its core, Idoru explores the proposition that intimacy is a function of immersion, of experience, of fully surrendering to the risks of engagement and that knowledge or facts or data by any name and in any quantity cannot bring affinity. The narrative contains a relatively early scene wherein Laney is subject to a monologue by Kathy Torrance (his boss at Slitscan); she goes on at length about "celebrity" as a natural resource, about how media and tabloids like Slitscan have corralled "celebrity" into a commodity that can be controlled and brokered. Taken out of context, the monologue appears to be a provocative and unambiguous statement about celebrity in and of itself. Examining the scene with the novel's thesis in mind, we begin to see what lies at the kernel of Kathy Torrance's soliloquy: how "celebrity" is a focal point for a broad knowledge about a person (or other object of affection/attention) that by definition cannot be fully experienced. "Celebrity" is data presented as intimacy -- the fine-grained details of some person's life presented to you in all their banal urgency, more fantasy than reality, ever out of reach, inevitably unable to satisfy your need to share and experience.
Consider Kathy Torrance's rant about celebrity as a mirror to Alison Shires and Laney's own back-story. As Laney reflects on Alison Shires' suicide, we begin to see these themes take shape. In her original context, Alison is presented to Laney as "all data"; she is little more than some fulcrum of collapsed transactions that swing back onto some celebrity target of Slitscan's. But as her imminent suicide becomes obvious to Laney through his "nodal apprehension", he becomes concerned about, even attached to her; he breaks through his own Fourth Wall and allows himself to become involved, to experience her face-to-face. He is there in her apartment for the shot that kills her. We can hear echoes of his investment, how the experience created an instantly intimate moment which he capsulizes as: "...the whole thing would settle to the sea floor, silting over almost instantly with the world's steady accretion of data." The experience would be lost, buried under the steady stream of celebrity's telemetry, and he wonders how he can live with that outcome.
The novel is peppered with examples to underscore this proposition about intimacy: * Consider that every bar, cafe, restaurant, etc. featured in the text is somehow themed and each theme is just data, each motif is hollow and empty -- the impression of something, its image, a copy or facsimile or interpretation but not the thing itself; * Consider how Chia's story about her Sandbenders computer resonates on this chord, how she descrives the disposable shells of modern electronics as insufficient for people to make a connection with them, and how a "tribe" in Oregon humanized each computer through their artisanal cases; * Consider Masahiko's tales of Walled City and how he continually asserts to Chia that it is "real" and not just a MUD, not just a website; * Consider Blackwell's final affirmation to Laney, that Kathy Torrance will no longer threaten him, how they will "carve out this deep and meaningful and bloody unforgettable episode of mutual face-time", how they will have reached "very personal terms" -- the data, the facts are discarded, meaningless -- only the experience matters.
Throughout the narrative, there is a very keen sense that each character is desperately seeking something "real", something with which he or she can truly and intimately connect. Rez at one point blurts out: "Nothing like it [...] That physical thing." It is on those sentiments that the novel opens and again where it closes. We open on Laney in the aftershocks of just such a "physical thing" and Chia striking out to Tokyo in search of same. And we close on Rez and Rei Toei -- both symbolic of Kathy Torrance's "celebrity", different sides of that same coin -- discovering that their union cannot be completed without it, and daring to forge just such a path....more