This is a collection of “stories and visions for a better future”, so as I make my way through it, I expect to be updating this.
But to begin:
The prefaThis is a collection of “stories and visions for a better future”, so as I make my way through it, I expect to be updating this.
But to begin:
The preface and the first story are written by Neal Stephenson, a white American male just a few months younger than I am. Reading both of those pieces left me somewhat disappointed with him, frankly.
First, the preface, titled “Innovation Starvation”. Stephenson relates how he feels let down that the United States no longer appears to be the creative engine of thrilling new technologies that he fondly recalls from his youth. The now cliched narrative arc from NASA’s Gemini missions and moon landing to the retirement of the Space Shuttle is emblematic. What galvanized him into engaging with this was the oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 — the people of the United States had been told almost forty years before, in the first oil crisis, that petroleum was politically problematic, yet we’d done very little about it (other than to fight wars and subsidized nations in the middle east).
The goal of the book is to provide conceptual templates to future innovators, the same way the writers of the Golden Age of science fiction had mesmerized and energized the generation of scientists and engineers behind NASA.
The story he writes, Atmosphæ Incognita, is about the engineering of a twenty-kilometer tall building. It is a good story, similar to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in its focus on the technology. It felt like something written in the 1950s, though (well before the actual mission of Apollo 13 in 1970). The first-person narrator is a lesbian, true, but that doesn’t really seem to matter. In one way, that’s great. Letting people just be themselves is quite post-modern. But that also means that the only element that hinted at being interesting was set aside, and so the entire story ends up being rather bland. Yeah, the technology is interesting, and the failure of some of the technology lends some interest, but no enticing drama.
Which brings me to why I’m mildly disappointed in Stephenson. I thought he would be clever enough to understand that technology isn’t going to save the United States, and that we can’t invent our way out of our malaise. Well, yeah, sure: some fascinating new toys might distract us from the adult problems we’re confronting, and might even boost the economy enough to mitigate some of them, but that isn’t much.
The problems we’re facing are cultural and sociological, and don’t have simple solutions — we really don’t know whether they have solution at all (if you think you know of a solution, then you just need to take a step backwards and recognize that you didn’t see that it is entangled within an even larger problem).
I’ll have to see whether the other stories largely rest on similar false illusions....more
This is a fun homage to Shakespeare. The fool from Lear is the titular hero of the story, which is based loosely on Lear, with MacBeth's witches throwThis is a fun homage to Shakespeare. The fool from Lear is the titular hero of the story, which is based loosely on Lear, with MacBeth's witches thrown in to provide a different narrative thrust and a few elements of deus ex machina.
Warning: plenty profane. I suspect that if Shakespeare were writing today, he'd be totally on board, though (although he'd probably be working in the medium of cable TV).
It can't get five stars, because there's no iambic pentameter, and it doesn't get four stars, because the author makes things a little too convenient for himself at times — but, as I said, it's fun; don't expect anything profound....more
The writing is great, the characters are vivid and compelling, there's a lot of wonderful humor — but unless you are hunting for some misanthropy, stick with his earlier works. I'd recommend Cat's Cradle....more
I think it is somewhat curious that vampires don't seem to be a la mode as they once were. Werewolves are ascendent,Almost the perfect piece of fluff.
I think it is somewhat curious that vampires don't seem to be a la mode as they once were. Werewolves are ascendent, such as when this book was written. We can also see that in other areas of fashion — in nineties and aughts, the androgynous look was very in. Remember the coolest guys were the metrosexuals? Now, all those guys seem to have beards, and are wearing flannel shirts. I dearly hope we don't head into chupacabra territory next.
Amusingly, the back of this ebook edition has questions intended to help a bookclub have a thoughtful discussion after reading this. I can see how some of them might provoke an interesting discussion, but the only one that is actually provocative would be the one about the vampires engaging in euthanasia.
I'd twist the question around a little bit. Imagine that there were, indeed, vampires among us, and that they need to consume human blood to live. First, would you be willing to donate blood to feed them? What if it had to be "fresh" — i.e., not refrigerated from the bloodbank?
If an actual bite was a physically ecstatic experience for the donor, would that increase your interest in being a direct donor? As in someone actually sinking fangs into your neck, knowing that you'll heal instantly and have no chance of acquiring any disease?
Okay, what about if you were terminally ill, and this appeared to be the most peaceful means of dying?
Would you vote to allow it as a form of capital punishment?...more
I'm very happy the bookclub's dictatress selected this, the first novel in the author's "Prostitution Trilogy", because the third, The Royal Family,I'm very happy the bookclub's dictatress selected this, the first novel in the author's "Prostitution Trilogy", because the third, The Royal Family, is 800 pages (divided into 593 chapters).
This appears to be the recommended translation, per Wikipedia. But do I go for the very cheap Kindle version ($1.99), or actually dish out ten times tThis appears to be the recommended translation, per Wikipedia. But do I go for the very cheap Kindle version ($1.99), or actually dish out ten times that for a hardback, y'know, to put in the bookshelf for show-off purposes?
Ah, and I notice that the Kindle version has lending set to "Nope, sucker!" Hmmm. Or maybe just borrow a copy from the library, since they've got 24 copies of this edition....more
This book got my brain churning, but I’m not sure if it did so in a way that makes this a more appealing book to most readers.
But, first, some notes:
TThis book got my brain churning, but I’m not sure if it did so in a way that makes this a more appealing book to most readers.
But, first, some notes:
The New York Times review was much more enthusiastic than I can account for. Maybe because I, unlike the Times reviewer, really dislike it when the technology in a contemporary science fiction story is pushed through the curtain of fantasy. But other readers might not be that prickly, so YMMV.
I love the title. Mildly clever, and so obviously intended to be clever that it is also ironically clever in that knowingness. I was actually a little disappointed that the author had his characters use the term, or at least how it were used.
Pacing feels slow through the first few chapters, before the major characters start interacting. Getting to know their individual backstories doesn’t really foretell the real drama/melodrama of the book. Eventually, the energy is cranked way, way up, and the by the end it became, at least for me, quite a page-turner.
This ended up reminding me a great deal of Daniel Suarez’ Daemon. In both books, a very, very central role is played by an exaggerated account of some of the worrisome aspects of today’s information technology, and in both cases, what the actual technology is capable of is blown so far out of proportion that I (a fairly astute information-technical guy since before time began) no longer was worried that the world depicted was of concern.
How the two books differ is equally important, though: Shafer does a much, much better job at portraying living humans, with their neuroses and conflicts. I think he has more potential as a writer, although the infotech thriller subgenre that he’s chosen to enter might not reward him for that.
He actually scored big points in my mind when he drew “impact attenuators” — those big trashcans at dangerous spots on freeways, such as the “gore points” where guardrails divide continuing lanes from exit lanes — in an analogy with respect to the emotional traumas we sometimes face. It’s tough to come up with a new metaphor that good.
Another sign that he’s wasted on the thriller crowd: on page 13, his female lead asks, “How many people are you supposed to like? she wondered. Below what number are you attachment-disordered?” The Dunbar Limit is probably a good estimate of the upper limit of that range, but our world today is almost neurotic about how socially isolated we’ve become (cf. Bowling Alone), and this is a clever way of expressing that angst.
What really got me caught up in the unfolding drama was connected to my disbelief of the general trajectory of the plot.
I’m moderately confident that our current civilization is going off the rails in the next century — the heavy economic disruption we’ll undergo as climate change messes with us will shove around our over-leveraged economy enough that it’ll eventually go down like a too-high Jenga™ tower.
But even if we somehow dodge that bullet, the coming century or so will be very bad for the majority of the planet’s population, as the Luddite Fallacy is proven to be not a fallacy after all, and most humans discover they are not need in the production chain, and thus not actually wanted, and not powerful enough to demand a socialist inclusion in the emerging post-scarcity economy. That trend is the one that Shafer is aiming at, and I found myself pondering how my view of how that is likely to play out differs from his. And he didn’t win any stars with his narrative — but for reasons that would be spoilers.
I briefly considered giving him props for including Portland, but I realized that he was just pandering to the current cool kids on the block....more
I read Mitchell's multi-mini-story Ghostwritten, and found it less than exciting. I know folks raved about Cloud Atlas and it got the movie treatmenI read Mitchell's multi-mini-story Ghostwritten, and found it less than exciting. I know folks raved about Cloud Atlas and it got the movie treatment and all, but I remained hesitant.
Then I read the review of The Bone Clocks by the marvelous New Yorker literary critic, James Wood (author of How Fiction Works), and realized I have no interest in reading any more Mitchell.
Wood's essay, "Soul Cycle", is exactly what a long-form hunk of literary criticism should be. It does contain minor spoilers of this book, but it is also likely to gently dissuade people from reading the book until Mitchell cleans up his act, so the spoilers are in the service of good....more
I jumped straight to the final two to start with the ones I was most interested in, but every story here is worth reading.
1.Twenty-one short stories.
I jumped straight to the final two to start with the ones I was most interested in, but every story here is worth reading.
1. ★★★☆☆ Tough Times All Over, by Joe Abercrombie
Light, clever and amusing, and fits in with the theme of rogues several times over, but anything more would be a spoiler.
2. ★★★★☆ What Do You Do?, by Gillian Flynn
Not in the fantasy subgenre. But I'm not sure what genre it is in, so I'm going to call this psycho fiction, because it delves into psychological stuff in several ways. First, it gets nicely into the head of the protagonist; second, there's the element of psycho, qu'est-ce que c'est? And finally, there's some nice tension because you really don't know quite what is going on, and who is doing what to whom.
Well, other than the handjobs. It's pretty clear who is doing those.
3. ★★★★☆ The Inn of the Seven Blessings, by Matthew Hughes
Pleasant — nothing too fancy, nothing too clever, but good craftsmanship. The characters are begging for more depth, but can't really get it in a short story, I guess.
4. ★★★★☆ Bent Twig, by Joe R. Lansdale
Heh heh. I don't know what this was, but it was fun. A Texas town full of ne'er do wells, beating each other up. Hicks with honor versus scum. But very well done, whatever curious sub-sub genre it's representing.
5. ★★★☆☆ Tawny Petticoats, by Michael Swanwick
6. ★★★★☆ Provenance, by David Ball
This historical fiction was almost a five-star story. Very well told, but there just a little too much convenience in the denouement.
7. ★★★☆☆ The Roaring Twenties, by Carrie Vaughn
A nice little story in the sub-sub-sub-genre of paranormal urban historical fantasy. Really three and a half stars, but what can I do?
8. ★★☆☆☆ A Year and a Day in Old Theradane, by Scott Lynch
The weakest of the bunch, although that judgement is undoubtedly affected by my prior reading of his Gentleman Bastard series. Lynch adheres to the same formula he uses in those books (although his characters here are mostly women), one that is initially quite exciting, but eventually palls. His heroes are thieves stealing from socially superior but morally inferior miscreants, and start out arrogantly overconfident, are foiled and imperiled, but always are more clever than their even more egregiously arrogant opponents and manage — surprise! — to turn the tables.
9. ★★★☆☆ Bad Brass, by Bradley Denton
Kin to chapter four; more Texas.
10. ★★★☆☆ Heavy Metal, by Cherie Priest
I was disappointed in the single steampunk novel of Priest's that I read, principally because of her casual disdain for the laws of physics. That's tolerable if magic is invoked, but that wasn't where she sited that particular story. Here she's on firmer ground. Kind of a variation on the modern urban paranormal story, except completely rural instead.
11. ★★★★☆ The Meaning of Love, by Daniel Abraham
This one starts off with a pretty hackneyed plot, but the author spins it out very well. Noble thieves again, though.
12. ★★★☆☆ A Better Way to Die, by Paul Cornell
Probably deserves more than three stars, but I'd been drinking rye.
13. ★★★☆☆ Ill Seen in Tyre, by Steven Saylor
The story itself is unexceptional, but nice. But what really caught my attention was the invocation of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. That's right, the curious phenomena when something you've just learned of suddenly pops up when you least expect it. Also known of as the Observational Selection Bias to less imaginative cognition-geeks. Anyway, I just got around to reading a queer little paranormal novel by fellow San Franciscan Fritz Leiber, who turns out to be famous for his fantasy series involving Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and suddenly they show up in this short story. Serendipity, you say? Fates have decreed that I should read that series, you say? Hmm, maybe... but it's eight novels long! I don't have that kind of time.
14. ★★☆☆☆ A Cargo of Ivories, by Garth Nix
Meh. Completely arbitrary.
15. ★★★★☆ Diamonds From Tequila, by Walter Jon Williams
Very nice! Our charming but barely moral anti-hero is a Hollywood star, struggling to unravel a murder during production of the movie that he desperately needs to succeed. I'll have to check out the author's The Fourth Wall, which introduced the fellow.
16. ★★★★★ The Caravan to Nowhere, by Phyllis Eisenstein
Spooky, and flawless. A tale of drug addiction and betrayed trust in the desert.
17. ★★★☆☆ The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives, by Lisa Tuttle
The mood and setting of this paranormal Victorian mystery were wonderful, but the characters were just a bit too smugly and simplistically drawn (the fellow Jesperson too much of a competent male), and the mystery itself too arbitrary to be dramatic.
18. ★★★★☆ How the Marquis Got His Coat Back, by Neil Gaiman
I have to confess, despite the mortal peril it may put me in, that I am not among the crowd that worships at the foot of Neil Gaiman. He writes nice stories, even very nice ones, but while the are undeniably precious, they aren't in a way that captures my undying adulation. That said, this is a nice story. It is an adjunct to his book (or, more properly, his novelization of his television series) Neverwhere. If you like his stuff, you will enjoy this, of course.
19. ★★★★☆ Now Showing, by Connie Willis
I don't even know what this was. A hyperbolic riff on the name of the book, coupled with a commentary on consumer manipulation, disguised as a silly romance? Most of Willis' research was apparently done on IMDB, whatever it was. Anyway, it was fun and frothy and gets three stars for that, and one more for being completely unexpected.
20. ★★★★★ The Lightning Tree, by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss is famous for The Name of the Wind, which was a stunning debut, marred in my estimation by his over-capable hero, Klothve. This story stays away from Klothve, focusing on a day-in-the-life of his fae sidekick, Bast, and is the better for it. By avoiding the overly dramatic life of his nominal protagonist, his narrative skills really get a chance to shine. There are no spoilers here with respect to the novels, and this story would be a lark even to those that haven't touched the series.
If this is the high point of this collection, I'll be satisfied. If there's better, I'll be floored.
21. ★★★★☆ The Rogue Prince, or A King's Brother, by G.R.R. Martin
Gently disappointing, but somewhat disconcerting, too, in how provocative that is.
Martin has obviously been in the biz long enough to know the adage to show, not tell, right? But this story is all a telling, with nary a tidbit of dialog or action. In one sense, it seems to be an experiment. Instead of the kind of driving narrative we know to expect from a page-turner, we get a historic, almost biblical, recitation of events. The only way this is acceptable is because Martin's Westeros is undoubtedly intimately known to the overwhelming majority of those picking up this fat collection, and he's winking and teasing us. To anyone else, the story will be an opaque collection of names and events with no context to provide any drama.
To those in the know— inevitably, only a indulgent subset of those — we get a distilled essence of the kind of dynastic politics that forms the backbone to his epic. One way to look at this is as a story outline, the dry textbook version before he has reanimated the personalities and the twisted intricacies of their relationships.
Finally, I suspect the wink and the tease is also about the absurd heights that the HBO series has added to the already stratospheric expectations he faces. To anyone who has only seen the television program, this story will be incomprehensible, as it contains none of the lurid melodrama that Has become the show's trademark. Readers, accomplished in using their own imaginations, and not a cinematographer's craft, will be those that can brew a satisfying cup of tea from the dry leaves he provides, and will be reminded that the best drama is in their own imaginings, and the best authors merely provide careful hints and nudges. He's a tricky man....more
My mother suggested I read this, and it was her birthday, so I looked into it. The review in the New York Times was worshipful, and I really don't reaMy mother suggested I read this, and it was her birthday, so I looked into it. The review in the New York Times was worshipful, and I really don't read enough modern fiction.
I have to confess, though: it moved too slowly for me. The writing is beautiful, and the pair of narratives twined together very elegantly. It almost felt like the two ends of the story were drawing towards one another, like the cliché of a couple on a date sharing a plate of noodles, only to discover they're slurping up the same noodle, leading inevitably to a kiss, right?
But it didn't have any real passion. I get that — both stories have reasons to be disconnected and passionless, but affectless reading is alienating, obviously.
Helen's story was much more personal, but the timid and frightened life of a small midwestern town was just a little too predictable in it's gross outline. The intimate details that fleshed it out we're crafted well, but the while thing was in sepia.
I picture Isaac's story in the high-contrast, grainy, over-saturated look of today's high-end drama and the retro feel it evokes. The political trajectory lent heightened tension, and in the end it created the need to read the book to it's conclusion....more
There really should be more books in which a descendent reconstructs reminiscences of an ancestor's life into a narrative. There can be a more personaThere really should be more books in which a descendent reconstructs reminiscences of an ancestor's life into a narrative. There can be a more personal feel than one might typically get than in most historical fiction. There might actually be a lot of this; the only thing similar that I've read is the excellent and award-winning Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History.
One Thousand Chestnut Trees: a Novel of Korea takes place before and during the Korean War. This was a little extra interesting to me because my father was one of the U.S. Navy pilots dropping bombs during that war, and I also studied the origins of the war a little in college (I remember being very interested in China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War).
But getting the feel on the ground during the conflict is important. Few of us in the developed world have ever lived through a war, huddling in the basement as bombs fall, struggling to find food and avoid predatory humans when the bombs aren't falling.
Not a great book, but very good within its scope, especially since few other books are likely to explore this part of history in quite the same way....more