While I flew through this book and, therefore, obviously enjoyed it, its flaws prevent me from giving it a high rating. Perhaps surprisingly,...more2.5 stars
While I flew through this book and, therefore, obviously enjoyed it, its flaws prevent me from giving it a high rating. Perhaps surprisingly, given the pedigree of some of the authors involved, chief amongst these flaws are some passages of startlingly bad writing. I mean, sentences or paragraphs that I would re-read thinking I must have misread them the first time around they were so badly constructed. I really should have kept notes as there were several. I remember one being something like “They outnumbered our numbers.” Wow, really?
Many of these read like editing problems - or, rather, a lack of editing. Any half-decent editor should surely have picked up these clumsy sentences. I’m not sure how the seven named authors worked together but I suspect that is the major issue, more care being taken in constructing the storyline and making sure the styles matched as closely as possible than actually ensuring the writing works. Perhaps all the glaring faults can be attributed to one of the authors and the others felt unable to cut him out. There was also some glaringly anachronistic language. I know that, unless it were written in Latin, Old French and Mongolian it can hardly be accurate, but some sentences and words just jumped out at me as inappropriate. For instance, there is the constant use of the word “ass” in its modern American meaning, sometimes in quite rapid succession. Again, this is just bad writing; grab a thesaurus and use alternatives: backside, posterior, rump. Actually, I am beginning to suspect that this and the terrible writing may be able to be laid at the door of the same member of the authoriat.
The book actually reads as though it is the write-up of a Roleplaying campaign - albeit rather a dull one - and the descriptions at the back of the dramatis personae, complete with ink line sketches, further reinforces this. (Spotting whether authors are roleplayers is actually something of a hobby of mine; you can often spot the tell-tale signs).
The characters are engaging enough, although not especially well drawn - and some of the shield-brethren have the air of cardboard cut-outs with a single defining characteristic to distinguish them. Again, something that made me think of extras in an RPG.
Not unexpectedly from a book from Neal Stephenson (although I have no way of knowing whether he wrote these particular sections) there is the occasional, sometimes heavy-handed, infodump, but I still felt that the world was under-explained, the setting unclear perhaps because the authors could picture it but failed to get that across to the reader. I couldn’t tell whether this was straight historical fiction, or history with a slant. At times I found myself wishing it was written by Mary Gentle and then, not only would we get her superb writing, but the wonderfully fleshed out reality of the historical setting would be shot through with fantastical anomalies that both enhanced it and made the reader examine it more closely.
All this said, the first volume of this series was an enjoyable read and I will probably continue with the series. The setting seemed to solidify somewhat toward the close, perhaps due to the style becoming more uniform or maybe simply because of to the gradual build up of detail, and I am intrigued to see how the arc of the two stories will intersect. As well as, perhaps, to find out whether the events are broadly historical or introduce elements that would never be found in the most detailed history of that time. (less)
I was a regular reader of Interzone magazine back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF on occasion. The publication in...moreI was a regular reader of Interzone magazine back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF on occasion. The publication introduced me to some fine writers, many of whom went on to great things (or were already well-established and I had simply not come across them before).
I stumbled upon it again recently, pleased to find that the magazine is still going - now published by TTA press, having replaced their periodical The Third Alternative, rather than John Clute and David Pringle - and decided, on a whim, to take out a subscription. I’m glad I did.
Although in a smaller, glossier format than it used to be, much is as it was those years ago; a wide range of book reviews, Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn film coverage and the great David Langford’s Ansible Link, a round-up of SF news, gossip and too many obituaries. And, of course, the stories.
I had heard of none of the writers in issue 252 before now, but will definitely be seeking several of them out in the future. The opening main feature, The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson is classic Interzone fodder; a weird, bleak post-apocalypse set story about loss and holding on to hope, little more than a vignette but enough to interest me, along with the interview with Williamson, to interest me in his new novel, The Moon King.
The Mortuaries by Katherine E. K. Duckett is likewise bleak, in a US where despite overpopulation due to the rising sea levels and dwindling resources, the dead are preserved and displayed a la Gunther von Hagens. Deliberate references to Make Room! Make Room! its movie, Soylent Green.
Val Nolan’s Diving Into The Wreck is similarly about preserving the past at the expense of looking toward the future, this time about the search for the lunar module that still sits somewhere in the dusty regolith.
Sleepers by the superbly named Bonnie-Jo Stufflebeam is odd and melancholy (definitely a theme here), the narrator keeping watch over her dying father while strange half-seen creatures run through the night and fascinate and terrify everybody.
The two stand out stories are the barely (if at all) SF A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey about a family dealing with loss and the funny and indescribable Two Truths and a Lie from Oliver Buckram where a relationship that may or may not be with an alien is plotted out over instants taken from a year, each described with the titular two truths and a lie.
As this is the first taste of my return to Interzone I'm not sure whether the downbeat, somber tone struck by the majority of the stories is typical, although I do remember that was often the case before - leavened by glints of hope and humour, to be sure, but Interzone always seemed to revel in its rather bleak reputation. Regardless, I am enjoying again an Interzone reader and am looking forward to the invention and quirkiness and independence that its semi-prozine status always allowed it to cultivate. And I'm sure I shall, once again, discover many great writers herein.(less)
Taleb's book pursues several central ideas that seem fairly commonsensical. The major theme is about the titular Black Swans - events that are ignored...moreTaleb's book pursues several central ideas that seem fairly commonsensical. The major theme is about the titular Black Swans - events that are ignored by forecasters (be they financial, social, or whatever) because they are either considered too unlikely to be worth taking into account or are not even noticed due to the narrow focus or inadequate models being used. Taleb points out that, rather than being the effect of gradual change, many of the most important changes to our world, for better or worse, are massive upheavals caused by unpredicted events. Financial crises, inventions, wars; so often these things are unpredicted and seem unpredictable, and cause fundamental transformation.
Taleb doesn't advance a model for predicting these things - indeed, part of his thesis is that the fervour for prediction tends to lead to a narrowing of foresight and the expression of false certainty, making the effect of the subsequent (and inevitable) unforeseen events all the more cataclysmic. Instead, he argues for a mindset that is open to seeing the possibilities rather than focusing on certain expectations.
Some of the blame for this outlook he places on the ubiquity of the Gaussian bell curve, or normal distribution, which is excellent for ranking the spread of certain characteristics (height and weight across a population, for example, where the vast majority will fall within a narrow band of the mean and outliers becoming increasingly rare - you probably know lots of people who are six feet tall, a few who are 6'4", and would be dumbstruck on meeting someone 8'), inadequate in areas with a massive disparity (income, book or record sales) and disastrous when used as a predictor - something unlikely can have a far larger effect than all the many median-scale common occurrences, such as a tsunami or a financial meltdown.
The author uses the terms Mediocristan (the place in which events follow the normal distribution) and Extremistan (the place where a significant number of events fall outside of it) and argues that we live with the dual problem that, while many of the vital mechanisms of our world are extreme we tend toward a certain blindness that leads us to think they are mediocre, that we like to form patterns and narratives that seem to make sense of the world and are then unable to respond when the world refuses to fit into these patterns.
While I find this difficult to dispute - especially within the utterly pretend-scientific world of economics which is the target of much of Taleb's vitriol - he tends to argue in terms so broad that this does somewhat dilute the strength of his points. For instance, he rails against the bell curve as a blemish on cognition, eventually conceding that it is just not the tool for the job to which it is being put, and this is emblematic of his approach.
Another example is his preference for the company of people with a broad intellectual scope rather than narrow expertise, and his extension to arguing that the former are generally preferable in all fields. Again, this is difficult to argue with on the face of things - many intellectuals whom I admire greatly have argued against the tendency of our educational system to train students in a limited fashion rather than educate them thoroughly - but the fact is that many of the most brilliant people who have provided the greatest boon to society are narrowly focused experts - not through training, perhaps, but because of targeted obsession in a particular field. If Taleb is arguing for a greater scope of education and interdisciplinary appreciation, I don’t think the point can be denied but, again, his argument is scattershot and it is not entirely clear what he is arguing for.
A final problem is that, early on, Taleb betrays our trust. He tells the story of a Russian author who, unable to get publishers interested in her experimental novel, published privately and became a huge success. Some time later he admits that she is a complete fabrication - and then returns to her in other examples throughout the book. I assume that he is drawing attention to the fallacy of narrative, about which he complains that we place too much trust. We are, as others have said, animals that tell stories to make sense of the world. This meta-textual trick of course makes us take what he writes with a pinch of salt, as we should, but as he uses personal anecdotes frequently throughout to support his points, the thought that he may well be making them all up further weaken his case.
All this said, The Black Swan is an interesting read from a man who obviously has some good ideas and relishes intellect and discussion. I imagine that he is a voluble and entertaining speaker - and probably an excellent conversationalist and dinner guest. (less)
The first of Connelly's Harry Bosch books has a lot going for it, most notably an excellent plot involving murder, banks heists, deception and the Vie...moreThe first of Connelly's Harry Bosch books has a lot going for it, most notably an excellent plot involving murder, banks heists, deception and the Vietnam war. Heironymous 'Harry' Bosch is a middle aged LA homicide detective whose career has gone from glittering to dismal - after being lauded by the press for his work solving high profile cases and having a TV character based on him he has been hounded from the prestigious Robbery Homicide Division to a lower ranking post in Hollywood Homicide by Internal Affairs, who are still looking to complete the job and chase him from the force. This is because he's the classic detective, brilliant but not seen as part of "the Family", something of a loose cannon (he even considers himself to be a bit of a cliché - he listens to jazz, drinks too much and is a loner who can't hold down a long term relationship).
Bosch is, however, an good character with a nice backstory and a decent amount of complexity. The same goes for some of the supporting cast, while others are cardboard cyphers (the two IAD officers, Lewis and Clark, for instance). The writing itself is ok - I do love the way the story unfolds, and the way that Connelly mixes Bosch's internal musings and memories into the narrative on occasion - but often the prose is downright clunky. In particular Connelly writes dialogue like a journalist (which he was); it is more about providing information than character. Indeed, there is hardly any character voice in the dialogues at all (with the possible exception, oddly, of Bosch's partner Jerry Edgar who is only a minor character, the voices are largely interchangeable; Bosch's narrative voice is strong but even that doesn't really carry over into his speech).
But a very strong, engaging thriller with some real substance, which I far prefer to the sort of page-turner thrillers that I finish and find I couldn't give a damn about any of events or characters I'd been reading about for the previous 400 pages (James Patterson and his ilk).
An odd side note. The cover photo on my edition seems to be of a rainy British motorway, which is a bit weird...
This was a tough one to rate. It is my first time reading DeLillo, and I confess that this does make me want to read him more, despite my low rating....more
This was a tough one to rate. It is my first time reading DeLillo, and I confess that this does make me want to read him more, despite my low rating. His writing is beautiful, built of rhythms and allusions, foreshadowings and call-backs. So why did I rate it so low?
From the start there was something in the speech patterns of the characters that annoyed me. Almost every sentence is fragmentary, unfinished. Yes, people speak like this often, but not constantly. At first I thought DeLillo was going for this sort of stilted realism, even though to me it sounded stagey and fake, like an amateur dramatic performance of a Pinter play. In retrospect, though, this style fits in with the style of the rest of the book. Everything about the book hints at more going on than is foregrounded - as should be the case with literature, of course; that is one of the things that raises it above ‘ordinary’ fiction - but I have no idea what. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; ambiguity can be a wonderful tool and I had decided when I finished this book that if the ambiguity stayed with me and made me think and question what I had read I would go back and up my rating, but it hasn’t. I won’t say that it is a novel about nothing - it is about loss, obviously, and communication (or the problem of it) and, no doubt, other things, but it seemed to me a fairly empty exercise. One thing that seemed appropriate was the description of Lauren’s performance as the titular Body Artist. It seemed like one of those avant-garde pieces of performance art that certain cultured people coo over and pretend they see profound meaning in, but is really vapid and pretentious, which seemed a nice parallel for the book itself. (less)