Make a Scene deserves four stars primarily because it does a damn fine job of collecting in one place all of the advice we need to know about writingMake a Scene deserves four stars primarily because it does a damn fine job of collecting in one place all of the advice we need to know about writing scenes: how to start/support/end one, how one uses each scene, how to know what a scene is for, how to know when a scene is bad or, more likely, just plain unnecessary. He covers scenes of suspense, action, drama, contemplation, dialogue, flashback, epiphanies and resolutions. He reminds us that every character, not just the protagonist, is involved, has something at stake, something she wants, has fears, motivations and challenges.
Two topics he didn't address, but should be, is (1) character inertia: A character, like most people, won't actually do something until forced by circumstance, and even then most characters will take the smallest possible action to resolve the conflict; and (2) dialogue that expresses power: the notion that in every conversation, characters are either seeking connection or authority (men more often seek the latter, women the former, but we all seek both) and dialogue that does neither is in the category of "as you know, Bob" information dumps.
Still, a pretty good read, and worth the effort....more
I was so glad to have this book. After Cryoburn, which was just about the worst book Lois has ever written (I mean, seriously, was that just a contracI was so glad to have this book. After Cryoburn, which was just about the worst book Lois has ever written (I mean, seriously, was that just a contract and a paycheck?), Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is a lovely return to the wit and banter that is Lois' main draw.
There's a lot going on in this book, and to appreciate all of it you have to have a lot of Vorkosigan history loaded into your head; even if you don't, though, you'll appreciate the skill and facility with which Lois describes her characters and gives them unique voices and sends them on their merry way to redemption or destruction. There are hilarious scenes, and snappy dialogue, and comforting themes.
The opening is the weakest part; it's virtually a rehashing of Byerly and Ivan's opening encounter in A Civil Campaign. How Ivan gets mixed into the mess is also problematic, reading a bit like the infiltration scene in Cryoburn, and I'd started to worry that Lois' touch was lost for good. But once she got everyone back onto the ground in Barryar, she had enough material to work with that the story really started to click and surge forward. ...more
I was hoping to get more out of this book (which has since been retitled Build Your Resilience) than I did. It's just that I've read enough self-helpI was hoping to get more out of this book (which has since been retitled Build Your Resilience) than I did. It's just that I've read enough self-help books throughout the years that, to be honest, everything in this book has been said before, and frankly said better, by other people.
Robertson's biggest flaw is that he writes like an academic addressing other academics, and his work is a slog to slog through unless you're used to that mode of address. Much of his work about values clarification and commitment to action are dense retellings of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or a complicated redressing of Morita Therapy. Other parts of the book are equally tangled versions of Buddhism Without Belief or A Guide To The Good Life, both of which I would recommend before this book....more
Stephen Batchelor has written a very short little book in which he writes a lot of very sensible things about the way Buddhist religiosity gets in the
Stephen Batchelor has written a very short little book in which he writes a lot of very sensible things about the way Buddhist religiosity gets in the way of Buddhist practice. His best example is that of the Four Ennobling Truths, which get turned into propositions of fact to be believed before one can proceed, that "Life is Suffering," "Suffering is caused by Desire," "To escape Suffering one must eliminate Desire," and "Having eliminated Desire, one must avoid returning to it," and so on. Batchelor's premise is that this is exactly what the Buddha never wanted, a religion. What Buddha wanted was a recommended course of action, to understand the source of a particular anguish, to let go of the source so it can be dealt with on its own, to realize a cessation of anguish, and to continue onward.
To me, that sounds exactly right. It's hard to do in many cases, and I can't imagine myself giving up some of the pleasures I enjoy even as the Buddha advises that my wanting and enjoying them is itself a source of anguish. But it sounds right without being a complete straitjacket approach (as I discussed last week regarding Montessori, Kubler-Ross, or as one correspondent pointed out, Maslow) or requiring that I buy into any whacked metaphysics.
Batchelor also wants Buddhism to give up its insistence on reincarnation, which he considers a drag on it inserted by the ur-Hinduism of Buddha's time. He writes a lot of nifty things, such as the conflict of the rebirth-meme with the traditional Buddhist notion that there is intrinsic "self" independent of its substrate, and he writes things that my brain automatically asterisks, such as "death is inevitable," to which my brain appends "(for now)."
But my brain came to a screeching halt when I read the following:
An agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning. Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. It confronts the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief. It strips away the views that conceal the mystery of being here-- either by affirming it as something or denying it as nothing.
I am sufficiently anguished by this paragraph that I feel compelled to respond. Batchelor has wedged himself firmly into the intellectual incoherency of a 19th-century fad that, today, has not only lost its original meaninglessness but has become a sort-of spiritual cop-out.
It surprises me that, having been so erudite about a 6th century BCE manuscript, he fails to recognize the absurdity of falling back on a 19th century neologism. Were there no agnostics prior to 1880, when Huxley coined the term? Of course there were, but they were called "atheists," and Huxley later stated clearly that he coined the term to obfuscate the fact that he was one. Agnosticism, at best, is an intellectual stance regarding knowledge-- it's a position about what one can know, not about what one believes-- but it discusses that knowledgeability in terms of an inaccessibility. If you can never know, why talk about it? It bugs me that people ascribe a quality to something they claim one can ascribe no qualities at all.
This is one of the things that always confuses me about "agnostics" like Batchelor. It doesn't matter what you say, really: I want to know how you act. If you act as if your actions have no consequences except in the here and now, then whatever "agnostic" knowledge you lay claim to is irrelevant: your belief is that the metaphysical is irrelevant to your actions.
In the end, though, Batchelor hasn't come up with anything new: he's made Buddha's description of the human condition palatable to a secular west and in doing so he's paralleled modern psychotherapy, which also hasn't come up with anything new. And the outcome of his "practice of Buddhism" is still an iffy proposition, to be accepted not after consideration but with blind belief, and if it doesn't work for you it's not because you're wired differently from him, but because you're just not trying.
The central argument of Sex at Dawn can be summed up with a question: if monogamy is so damned "natural" and "normal" for human beings, why is so muchThe central argument of Sex at Dawn can be summed up with a question: if monogamy is so damned "natural" and "normal" for human beings, why is so much cultural energy and legal firepower required to ensure that couples remain monogamous?
The authors argue that it isn't natural at all, and that by defying human beings' innate promiscuity we're short-changing our potentials for pleasure and happiness. To this argument they bring a startling amount of evidence to bear: about how 19th century ethnographers started with monogamy as the assumed state of human beings and then worked hard to elide all contrary evidence; about how modern anthropologists contradict themselves when trying to explain away all of the successfully and happily promiscuous human cultures; how pre-civilizational anthroarcheology reveals that, prior to the invention of agriculture, humans likely lived in a variety of different organizational patterns most of which were highly tolerant of promiscuity.
Sex at Dawn will seriously change the way you think about monogamy, about culture, and about repression. It's a game-changer of a book; at least I hope it will be....more
I wanted to give this book five stars, but I can't. Not because it isn't a fabulous book, but because the topic under consideration is just way too laI wanted to give this book five stars, but I can't. Not because it isn't a fabulous book, but because the topic under consideration is just way too large to handle inside its 350 pages. The chapter titles sorta give away the story: each is about a particular kind of sex; after the first 70 pages, which deal with the emotional aspects of being disabled and still wanting sex, and the legitimacy of wanting sex when you're disabled, the rest of the book comes across as a mainstream how-to, along the lines of the still-fabulous Guide to Getting It On, only with the occasional aside about how to manage this-or-that issue when you have this-or-that disability; the usual rundown of masturbation, intercourse, oral sex, sex positions for managing various disabilities; sex toys, kink, safer sex, and dealing with violent or abusive partners.
What I really wanted was a book more along the lines of How to Fuck When You Have Disability X, where "X" could be anything: MS, fibromyalgia, epilepsy, Parkinsons, blindness, etc. Or, perhaps even more trenchant, How To Fuck Someone With Disability X, because this book really doesn't do much to help the partners of the disabled other than to join in the "Yes, you're a sexual being and yes, you deserve sexual pleasure and yes, there are men and women who like you just as you are and would fuck you just as you are" cheerleading. (Note that I'm using "fuck" here generically; feel free to mentally substitute "make love to," "have sex with," "kiss," "suck," "lick," "sodomize," or whatever you want instead.)
This book is pretty much a first of its kind. I hope for more someday. It's a good start, but the world still needs a great finish....more
Neptune's Brood is set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, but has no relationship to the first book's characters or setting. If anything, it'sNeptune's Brood is set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, but has no relationship to the first book's characters or setting. If anything, it's set even further into the future, where a young posthuman woman is visiting a strange solar system in the hopes of tracking down her missing sister. Stross's universe is our ordinary one, where faster-than-light travel is impossible, so Krina, our heroine, has had herself transmitted across the light years via radio and is downloaded into a custom-built body the specifications for which she sent ahead of her mindstate. Her search for her missing sister is a decade behind schedule, since she was the nearest of several sisters several light year away.
Krina is a forensic economist; her job is to write up the histories of the Great Scams of the Galaxy, so that the bank she works for knows how to recognize a scam when it comes up. She's on the search for lost billions in what has to be the greatest scam in history. A scam that takes the entire book to describe.
Stross writes Science Fiction, but the amazing thing about Neptune's Brood is that the main science being speculated about here isn't space flight, or robotics, or genetics: it's economics. Stross comes up with a stunningly plausible multi-tiered currency for describing transactions across light years (and hence, across years, decades, and centuries), and then creates the most amazing scam ever within this brilliant framework.
The ending is a bit short, as Stross tries to tie up all the loose ends, but it's only a bit of a let-down after all the thrillingly creative stuff he's thrown at you: bat-winged pirates who're more interested in guaranteeing your shipment than robbing it; communist squid; robot zombies and much, much more. Well worth the time!...more
This is a very short novella-- 30 pages or so. And it's barely a story. The characters want, but what they want they also wHot, sexy, and very loving.
This is a very short novella-- 30 pages or so. And it's barely a story. The characters want, but what they want they also want to give each other so badly. The romance will she/ won't she is long over when this story begins. What we get is an anecdote about lovely women enjoying their wedding night, a story in two short acts.
But what a night! Ms. Leong can write. Unlike a lot of romance, Leong doesn't start with a blunt biography but instead gives us glimpses that build to show, with beautifully long description and completely natural language, two people very much in love, and very much willing to challenge themselves to show how much they love each other.
This story is deeply sexy, and deeply sexual, but it's very, very hot, and unlike a lot of erotica writers, Ms. Leong is neither embarrassed nor embarrassing. I wish more writers in this field had her sense of rhythm and respect for the reader. ...more
I liked The Stars Change a lot, but I wanted to love it. There's a large cast of characters-- Kimsrialyani, Narita, Guarav, Rajiv, Amara-- and they'reI liked The Stars Change a lot, but I wanted to love it. There's a large cast of characters-- Kimsrialyani, Narita, Guarav, Rajiv, Amara-- and they're all ordinarily decent people thrust into indecent situations which have nothing to do with sex. If anything, their sex lives are among the most decent aspects about them. They find themselves in the midst of chaos tasked with stopping it from getting even worse.
The beautiful parts of this book come from Mohanraj's willingness to share with us what she's lived of South Asian culture, of the beauty and sensibility of it overlaid onto an SFnal, colonial setting. (She's understandably the editor of Jaggery, a magazine of South Asian literature.) Glimpses of family life among different groups, and how they interact, are true treasures to be found within this book. Mohanraj's grasp of sex and love are vibrant and real, and the way they connect with her cultural world-building made this book a pleasure to read.
The story has a classic problem of our age: too much erotica for mainstream, too much story for erotica. Explicating the external conflict, which is really more of a MacGuffin to get the characters into closer proximity, doesn't start until almost a third of the way into the book. There's a loss of focus: the book concentrates almost entirely on ordinary people called to heroic deeds, but Mohanraj never seems quite sure just how much she wants the reader to devote to getting to know these people. Does Kim matter? Does Narita? Yes they do, but it's hard to know that until well into the last chapters. As the book goes along, the narrator moves along the different, deeply personal and highly emotional subplots playing out, without ever signaling just how much we should care. It leads to a Whedonesque ending that doesn't quite have the impact it could have had....more
"Abuse of power comes as no surprise." - Jenny Holzer
She Left Me Breathless by Trin Denise, is billed as a love story, but the overarching theme of th"Abuse of power comes as no surprise." - Jenny Holzer
She Left Me Breathless by Trin Denise, is billed as a love story, but the overarching theme of this book is much more about getting away with the abuse of power.
Sydney is a high-powered CEO and owner of a company that produces specialty office hardware and software products. Rachel is the woman she loved in college 13 years ago; at the time, Rachel had a daughter, Caitlyn, aged 6; as the book opens Rachel is married, living a heterosexual life, and has a second daughter.
Sydney has never forgotten Rachel. She hires a private detective to investigate Rachel and collect as many manipulative levers as she can to crowbar Rachel back into her life. She hires Caitlyn, now 19, straight out of high school. Caitlyn is supercompetent in that way only people in novels can be. (In fact, Sydney is surrounded by so many hypercompetent women she either nicked them from a Heinlein universe or Vorkosigan House.) Sydney buys the company Rachel works at just to get closer to her. Ultimately, she blackmails Rachel into a close professional relationship with her by threatening Caitlyn's job.
If a man did that-- no scratch that-- if anyone does this in the real world, it's sexual harassment. It's stalking. It's bullying. And it's blackmail. At one point, after Rachel has made it clear she's faithful to her husband and her church, Syndney briefly contemplates taking Rachel into her arms and forcefully kissing her. The term for that is "corrective" sexual assault, and it's no different from when a man or woman forces him- or herself on a homosexual of the opposite sex in the belief that exposure to a "real man" or "real woman" would "cure" them of a false consciousness. (To be fair, Sydney doesn't do it, but not because she has any moral qualms about it; she just doesn't think it would work.) Everything the gay and lesbian community has built around the ideas of the culture of consent and the equality of all persons is cheerfully ignored in this book. Everything my time at Queer Nation taught me is sacrificed to get these two women into bed with each other.
The villains are all mustache-twirling idiots, even the female ones. With rare exceptions, the men are all incompetent, foul-mouthed, drunk, or generally bad dudes.
And when it comes to character growth, well, there is none. Sydney gets what she wants and isn't chastened for or by her bad behavior. Rachel is a dishrag to her upbringing at the beginning of the book, and a dishrag to her infatuation with Sydney at the end. In the middle there is a lot of painful exposition about an embezzlement scheme that drives one external conflict (you know the type, "I suffered to do this research, and dammit, you're gonna read it, because I need word count!"), a lot of as-you-knows about how rich and powerful and wise and wonderful Sydney is. Ms. Denise could write crackling good dialogue if she knew when to turn it off, because when she starts she goes on and on in a "see how clever I am" bantering way that may work for sitcoms but not for literature. And I don't think she's spoken to an eight-year-old, not even an excessively brilliant one, since she was eight years old herself, because that scene was painful to read.
But all is forgiven for love, and the love scene is actually very good. Too bad it's really the only thing the book has going for it. It can't save the mundane plot, the characters I couldn't root for, the themes I could not in good conscience support, and the anvilicious writing style. ...more
The Pomodoro Technique - Illustrated is one of those self-help books of which I am excessively fond, seeing as it's all about turning yourself into aThe Pomodoro Technique - Illustrated is one of those self-help books of which I am excessively fond, seeing as it's all about turning yourself into a productivity machine and not wasting your life away. This books is called "The Pomodoro Technique - Illustrated," because it's basically a re-write, with amateurish crayon drawings, of Francesco Cirillo's 1990s chapbook, "The Pomodoro Technique," which is available online, as a PDF, under a Creative Commons license, downloadable for free.
Which more or less makes this book worthless.
It's not a bad book, mind you. There are the silly illustrations, and an ill-fated attempt to meld mind-mapping with a sound and well-known time management technique, and really ridiculous dialogues at the beginning of each chapter, but the basics are sound. There are just so many better guides out there. If you've never encountered personal time management for projects before, this book will help, and probably won't hurt.
But everything in it can be gotten for free elsewhere. Zen Habits is a good place to start, and won't cost you $24.95. Harvard Business Review has a good series of books, starting with "Managing Yourself."
All I can say is, be thankful for public libraries....more
Okay, let's be honest. This is not a great book. Andrew Offut (nee' "John Cleve") wrote this to fill a contract, and it shows: he repeats himself, a lOkay, let's be honest. This is not a great book. Andrew Offut (nee' "John Cleve") wrote this to fill a contract, and it shows: he repeats himself, a lot, in order to fulfill his wordcount. The opening crisis is cheap and irrelevant to the main plot, and it's not even good character development. The characterizations are often silly and stupid.
But it's all fun. And dirty. And sexy. And if you're a Furry, this 1982 work is the foundational work of furry science-fiction erotica. Nothing like it had ever existed before. It's been completely surpassed both by modern SF and by modern Furry fiction-- but for the latter, it's still better than the bulk of what's out there.
Because when the big-bosomed Kenowa and excessively manly Captain Jonuta encounter the eight-breasted, all-muscle, hypelithe feline creature named HRlee, things aboard the Starship Coronet get very, very sexy indeed......more
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological counseling in which the therapist eschews the traditional seeking of root causes for a mCognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological counseling in which the therapist eschews the traditional seeking of root causes for a more objective and forward-seeking approach. Rather than help the patient seek reasons for their problems, the CBT therapist trains the patient in the use of psychological tools and rationalizations to help the patient manage and overcome their disorder. Through the building of habits, repetition, and framing, the patient is expected to develop a behavior pattern that, through dissonance, drags their emotional state into compliance with their daily activities. This approach has demonstrated surprising efficacy in double-blind studies.
The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, by Don Robertson, is a sadly long-winded treatise that attempts, and mostly succeeds, to show that the roots of CBT can be found in ancient traditions, mostly Stoicism but also Epicureanism, Skepticism, and even Buddhism. But it's too long, too wordy, too desperate to make its case.
Robertson starts by showing that modern psychotherapy, the sort where the patient must do something to overcome his problems, is trying to be exactly what philosophy was two millennia ago: a practice, a daily routine, a way of living that was harmonious with both human nature and the inevitability of life and life's challenges. Each of these, be it Buddhism or Stoicism or whatever, taught people both a fundamental set of truths about the human condition, and a daily practice for how to manage the frustrations and even despair that comes from those truths.
Robertson then goes through the various standard practices of CBT and its modern precursors, and shows how the Stoics were already doing all of those things 2,000 years ago: mental rehearsal for tragedy or disaster, daily planning to do "the work the world has brought you," always with the tagline, "fate willing," nightly journaling of your day to ensure your actions were in line with your planning, actively imagining a present counsellor over your shoulder to see your own actions as others would see them; imagining your frustrations as others might see them to assess their true weight; and embracing a long-term sense of love, happiness, and joy that has nothing to do with immediate pleasures, but instead is ultimately about ensuring your own long-term mental health, by embracing trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, intimacy, productivity, and the ultimate condition: integrity.
This book, however, could have been half as long and accomplished twice as much. Robertson tries too hard, and co-opts too many different traditions, in his attempt to make his point. At several points Robertson quotes Spinoza, Montaigne, Descartes, and other philosophers, and this comes across much less as a connection between the two traditions and more as an argument from authority: "All these smart guys embraced Stoicism, so you should as well." At one point, Robertson makes a tenuous connection between the teachings of Jesus and his premise, but the material there is weak and desperate; it comes out as an attempt to reassure his audience that there's nothing un-Christian about either practice, and it's one that fails.
This is a thick book of small but valuable nuggets of knowledge and wisdom. It is most definitely not a self-help book, nor is it really a solid introduction to either Stoicism or CBT. Robertson jumps around too many different issues to do more than make his central case: everything in CBT has been done before, successfully, and CBT practitioners should both understand that and be proud of it. ...more
Red Plenty is probably one of the finest, and saddest, books I have ever read. It's hard to tell what it is. The best description I've heard is that iRed Plenty is probably one of the finest, and saddest, books I have ever read. It's hard to tell what it is. The best description I've heard is that it's science fiction-- only the science is economics, and the fiction is entirely based on real history. Red Plenty is about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, told in a series of stories-- anecdotes, in many cases-- of the lives of ordinary citizens, apparatchiks, and intelligenzia of the time.
Some of the vignettes feature an ordinary citizen we only see once-- to show us what Spufford wants us to see, life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, then Khrushchev, and finally Brezhnev. The central theme of the book is how close, how desperately close, the Soviet Union was to fulfilling its dream of red plenty, of turning Lenin's massive industrial push into a cornucopia machine that would crank out everything humanity ever needed, and how every opportunity the soviets had was squandered, in the end, by shortsightedness, by ideology, by political maneuvering, by sheer human perversity, by bad luck.
Spufford is a talented writer at setting up scenes, at drawing word paintings of places we've never been to and showing us the beauty and decay, the joy and terror. He's good at showing just how human Khrushchev was, and how desperately Khrushchev wanted to be a good man, and how badly he fared at it. If you want to read a book that makes you cringe, and sigh, and cheer, then Red Plenty is that book.
It starts in 1938, with the invention of Linear Algebra, and how this became the start of what we now call "big data." The soviets started a crash course in it, and in 1959 began cybernizing their command economy, trying desperately to organize networks of networks of industries to produce everything every citizen would ever want or need. It ends in 1970, with Khrushchev, retired and desperately depressed, looking back at all the potential wasted.
Every vignette ends with notes about what details are real, what quotes are authentic, and which Spufford crafted for dramatic effect. He's brutally honest with you, and himself, about how he's telescoped or compressed various events to make the drama more real. The EPUB version of the book is better than the print-- the notes are at the end of each chapters, and the truth of each note, dozens per story, are eye-opening. The print edition has the notes at the end of the book.
Every time you read how the SU screwed up-- how the cyberneticists simplified planning in 1960 by valuing every piece of factory equipment, no matter how simple or complex, no matter how hard or how barely used, by its weight-- how the "shadow pricing" system meant to simulate a demand economy without being a market economy was repeatedly overriden by politicians trying to keep the marketplace "familiar" to ordinary Russians-- how the soviets banned "bureaucracy" as they understood Americans did it, and thereby created a system of favors and graft-- how the soviets invented the Lamaze birth technique, then neglected to teach it to expectant mothers but forbade physicians from otherwise helping those women give birth-- how in the 1970s the Soviet Union stagnated because there was no program for tearing down factories, no notion of upgrading from a manufacturing base-- you die a little inside. So much suffering, and yet Spufford convinces you that they meant well. They really thought they were going to create paradise on Earth. They were no more evil than Americans, or Europeans, or anyone else on Earth. They really tried.
The most remarkable thing about Perestroika, at the end of the book, is that Gorbachev was a true believer. He wanted to believe that red plenty could happen; it was Brezhnev and his "managed socialism" that had led to stagnation. The great program of cybernizing the economy, Soviet Union, of making the great chain from farm and mine to consumer and back, could actually really work. But twenty years of slow decay had led the young people to give up. When he started to institute his reforms, popular sentiment revolted. The wall fell. The Soviet Union was over.
These little glimpses into many lives, 18 in all, obviously don't tell the whole story. But they do give concrete examples of why the system failed, and more importantly, why it couldn't recover: there were no alternatives. Exceptional experiments were not allowed. Scientific investigation was "administered" rather than "supported." You can't command what you don't know you want: and nobody knew what they really wanted from computers, or the economy, or industry. And without that freedom to fail, they never had a chance to succeed. No matter how close they were.
If you ever want to know what the Soviets were thinking, Red Plenty will give you a heavy dose of understanding. Worth every second of your time....more
So, it took a week, but I finally finished Banks' new Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata. It was a better novel that Matter, Transitions, or Surface DSo, it took a week, but I finally finished Banks' new Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata. It was a better novel that Matter, Transitions, or Surface Detail, but Banks is turning into a one-trick pony here.
The Hydrogen Sonata (also known as T. C. Vilabiers 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, catalogue number MW 1211) is a fiendishly difficult piece of music to master, yet Lt. Cmdr. (reserve) Vyr Cossant is determined to master it. She's close, very close-- but in less than a month, her entire civilization is scheduled to be raptured, enfolded, sublimed-- uploaded whole into The Sublime, Banks' "universe next door" where the laws of physics are different-- where experience and possibility are infinite, where growth is intrinsic in existence, where decay is nearly impossible. In the Cultureverse mythology, individuals become discordant within the Sublime-- you must go as a large group, preferably a whole civilization, with a common understanding.
The Gzilt, the civ to which Vyr belongs, was an invitee to the Culture ten thousand years ago but they declined joining the Culture. They're now an equivalent technological level to the Culture, but unlike the Culture the Gzilt, as a civilization, is Done With This Place And Ready To Move On.
Nobody remembers quite why the Gzilt declined joining in the Culture's pan-humanism. Except, someone does. Someone who was there, ten millennia ago. Someone Vyr met once. It's the Last Great Mystery of the Gzilt-- why did they decide to go it alone as a civilization, choosing a planet-bound interstellar existence to the Culture's magnificent Ships and Ringworlds?
Finding Out The Reason Why becomes the centerpiece mystery of The Hydrogen Sonata.
As such, The Hydrogen Sonata manages, for the most part, to avoid many of the cliche's for which Banks is rapidly becoming known. There are many fewer lectures in this book: no rants about how Fear Of Hell Is Necessary To Keep The Masses In Line (Surface Detail), The Limited Liability Corporation Is An Inherently Corrupting Institution Whose Damage Is Magnified By Apocalyptic Religions Like Christianity (Transition), or Virtual Reality Is Not Merely A Distraction But A Vile Abandonment Of Everything That Makes Life Worth Living (Matter). At worst, we get a few throwaway conversations about how wanting to live "too long" is an act of cowardice that breeds further cowardice, about how The Universe needs death to keep the system fresh, and how the living are going to keep repeating their errors anyway until the end of time.
A lot of this book is told in email-- between those Cool Vast Intellects known as The Minds, the hypersentient ultradeep artificial intellects that inhabit The Cultures' starships and stations. The book is a bit like American Football-- fast-paced action punctuated by meetings. Unfortunately, The Minds' conversation looks more like a bickering group chat by semi-professionals than anything else.
There is Banks' usual clockwork plotting (complete with his classic few-pieces-missing). Innocents die, while the guilty, surprisingly, go free this time. That was disappointing. There's a bit of Deus Ex Mechanica, naturally, as Banks' more than once pulls Culture high-tech out of his posterior to justify moving his characters from frying pans into fires to solar flares. The Gzilt come across as more Terran than Cultureniks: more like us, more understandable to us. This lets the reader identify better with Vyr and her opposite, the completely banal, completely understandable, completely pathetic villain, the politician Banstegeyn.
What disappointed me most about The Hydrogen Sonata was the de-mythologization of The Sublime. Banks must have read Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder, because The Sublime comes across as "the other universe" in that book: a place where the core automata rules allow for indefinite, deliberate, willful expansion of Self and Civilization. By explaining it, Banks has killed much of the mystery.
The quest for The Reason Why is pure plot token: go here, acquire this bit of knowledge, which tells you to go there-- lather, rinse, repeat. Still, if you like Banks, there are scenes of his usual brilliance in here: he's still the master of description, of coming up with an Idea and then painting a gorgeous (or repulsive, depending on his mood) word painting of the setting, the people in it, and the circumstances that brought them there, so the plot token works pretty well anyway.
A better book, but far and away lacking the sense of wonder that comes from first encountering Banks. Maybe he decided all the hinting in The Player of Games wasn't worth the effort and not enough people noticed....more
Andrew Mayer's The Falling Machine is a strange and lovely book. It starts with a great idea: The Avengers, only steampunk, and now old and decrepit.Andrew Mayer's The Falling Machine is a strange and lovely book. It starts with a great idea: The Avengers, only steampunk, and now old and decrepit. The Paragons are a team of superheroes, and all of their equipment is driven by tiny energy sources only one man in the world knows how to make: Cells of Fortified Steam power The Submersible's suit, as well as Iron-Clads armor and The Industrialst's weapons. With one exception-- The Sleuth, who's a suave martial artist now in his mid-60s-- the Paragons depends upon various forms of Fortified Steam to operate specialized powered armor.
That one mad scientist is Dr. Darby, who is killed in chapter one by a villainous assailant. The Industrialist's daughter, Sarah, loved Darby as an uncle, and is determined to both free his greatest creation, a sentient robot known as The Automaton, and to figure out why he died. The Paragons are in disarray because, while they can operate the machine that makes Fortified Steam, they don't know if they can reproduce the secret it if and when it fails, and they know that someone else, The Eschaton, is after that very secret. And when things start to go very wrong, it looks like the Automaton may be a killer in their midst.
Only Sarah knows the truth.
The book ends on a cliffhanger, there is a Volume 2 out already, and I do intend to pick it up soon. It's brilliant in a special way, especially in its depictions of a 19th century New York with a very small handful of recently emerged super-powered crazies, both just and unjust. Mayer's writing style is revealed in a merging-plotlines way that I find off-putting. Chapters will end with characters suddenly showing up to save or complicate the day, followed by another chapter that explains how and why that character happened to be there.
Mayer does do a very good job of showing Sarah beating on the walls of the cage created by gender expectations in 19th century Americana, and how surprised Sarah is when she finds the walls are made of wet cardboard, and how uncomfortable she is walking through the hole she just punched through one, and for that he deserves a lot better attention.
A lot of the Steampunk milieu bows to the imperialist fetishism of 19th century eurofantasy steampunk by playing up London or Paris as a setting of choice, probably due to watching one too many Guy Ritchie films. The Falling Machine avoids that entirely, and is a welcome addition to the steampunk shelf if only for that reason alone....more
Johannes Cabal: The Detective is the follow-on book to Jonthan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer. Cabal is the necromancer of the title, aJohannes Cabal: The Detective is the follow-on book to Jonthan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer. Cabal is the necromancer of the title, a psychopathic little man in the pale, blond tradition of Elric or Dexter, obsessed in his own little way, like Victor Frankenstein, with uncovering the secrets of Life with a capital L, and woe betide those who get in his way. Necromancy is a condemned subject, and those who practice it are summarily executed, but Cabal isn't interested in raising armies of the dead or extracting obscure secrets, so he doesn't understand why people dislike him. Still, as so many people seem to want to shoot him he's gotten better at shooting back. As he himself puts it, he is a scientist "in the ongoing march of humanity from protoplasm to— I don't know, to be honest. Something slightly better than protoplasm would be a start."
I haven't read The Necromancer, and I didn't need to. Howard has written a wonderful little steampunk adventure with its own rules of science, magic, and the universe at large, as Cabal is arrested attempting to steal an obscure book on Necromancy from a library in some obscure Teutonic princedom-turned-republic, has a thrilling escape, and winds up on a quasi-zeppelin luxury liner fever-dreamedly mixed with the SHIELD helicarrier circa 1988, on which murders, assaults, and intrigues lead our anti-hero into a quagmire of personal and political webs. He meets a charming old foe who becomes something of an ally, and an excellent foil for conversation and quippery.
Quippery is at the heart of this book. Howard has a problem: he never met a cliche' he didn't like, and he'll use them at the drop of a hat. I winced, repeatedly, as expressions and metaphors long drained of vitality, much like Cabal's subjects, meandered across the page. And yet, if you forgive Howard his laziness, you'll get past them all for a rollickingly funny story about a high-functioning and brilliant psychopath working his way with relentless logic from one end of a conundrum to the other. Conversation is wicked, pointed, and hilarious; Cabal's own thoughts morbidly precise and smile-inducing.
Aside from cliche's, Howard occasionally head-hops without much warning. His book is rife with anachronisms, as when Cabal raids several morgues clearly run by men much more modern than the clothing, language, and setting imply. But these are actually quibbles. It could have been a much more precise book, I suppose, but it would be hard to imagine the precision necessary to all the fun it provides....more
There are three sections to Impro, but as a writer, it was the first that led me to give this book five stars. Johnstone's notions about how dialogueThere are three sections to Impro, but as a writer, it was the first that led me to give this book five stars. Johnstone's notions about how dialogue is always about status at first shocked me, and then made me think, and then by gods it made me a much better writer. Dialogue in fiction is always about wanting something, and so the characters jostle for it, either by assuring connection or seeking authority, and Johnstone's simple idea about how to think about dialogue that way is so illuminatingly powerful that this book ought to be required reading for every writer, period....more
You open Rule 34 expecting a police procedural, and indeed, that's how it starts out. It's a police procedural twenty-one minutes into the future: oneYou open Rule 34 expecting a police procedural, and indeed, that's how it starts out. It's a police procedural twenty-one minutes into the future: one minute, plus five years, more from the settings of its predecessor Halting State, although the police only solve a few minor crimes, never the major one.
At first, the book is annoying: it's too pat, too convenient. There are too damned many coincidences, too many characters who know too much about each other, run into each other too often, and oftentimes they act a little stupid. Stross isn't into stupid. He knows a stupid plot when he reads one, surely he's not going to write one.
You bounce around from head to head, and there are a lot more heads in this book than the last. There's Inspector Kavanaugh from Halting State, an ex-girlfriend of hers, there's Anwar and Adam and the Toymaker and a ton of other people, and their voices start to get blurry, at least the minor ones, but generally you keep it together long enough to make it interesting.
Eventually, though, it all dawns on you why there are coincidences, and you're impressed by the cheek of that bastard Stross. He mocks the Holmesian myth to policework, while at the same time he's written a contrivance of minescule shards of evidence, and at the end pulls his hat out of his rabbit and gives you a frighteningly plausible explanation.
There's not so much MMO in this book: its all set in the Real World, because what it's about is the way the network can someday reach out and fuck up the real world, in a very real and complete way. It's only twenty-one minutes into the future: the darknets are here, 3D printers are here, and if the Real Dolls aren't animatronic we're only a year out from voice recognition and a tree of scripts. Somewhere around 2016 three-dimensional printers wll be cranking out black-market paedodolls and voice mangling will allow softly accented voices in depressed locales to create hub-and-spoke tree farms of everything from "Oh, Daddy" to "Get on your knees you worthless worm." Stross has captured it all, much to your horror.
And you used to work at an early ISP. Even back in the nineties you could see it all coming down: you remember the caches of malware, cracked Photoshops and the usenet feeds full of self-proclaimed "responsible" paedophiles. And those were the ones functional enough to navigate the esoterica of TRN. These days, it's a one finger experiences-under-glass determination until your low-rent pervert with missing teeth and missing morals can find all the sickness he wants on-line, and carries it with him in his pockets.
It's enough to make you want to drink yourself into oblivion. It's not fun, especially when you have kids who are going to have to live with that nihilistic future. Rule 34 is a massive downer, but so is spinach: Take it in, goddamnit, because the alternative is to be blind. ...more
Halting State is a fascinating swerve: it's a Scottish Police Procedural set twenty minutes into the future, it has three character POV's, and it's enHalting State is a fascinating swerve: it's a Scottish Police Procedural set twenty minutes into the future, it has three character POV's, and it's entirely written in the second person.
But it's a superveniary second person: Stross successfully captures the mindstate of someone playing a first person shooter, combined with an esoteric puzzler, all told with his characteristic pyrotechnically precise voice. The plot is fairly straightforward: Officer Smith is called in on a bank robbery, only she learns that the bank was in a World-of-Warcraft-like massively multiplayer online role-playing game that exists only on the shared cloud-processing platforms of game subscribers, the theives were an army of Orcs backed by a dragon for heavy firepower, and they escaped through an illegal immigration tunnel from one MMO to another.
Which is silly until the nerds reveal that the total worth of what was in the bank amounts to almost many millions of euros. When that much value disappears out of anyone's bank, heads roll. Oh, and the top programmer at the job has gone missing.
What follows is a three-part song and dance between our cop, a forensic accountant from a company that insures the bank, and the forensic accountant's recently acquired pet nerd and gaming expert. There are twists and turns and Stross does a marvelous job of adding up a great many columns of facts and figures to tell it.
If the book has a problem, it's that in order to make it seem more interesting than it is, Stross has to pretend that code management tools for MMOs exist more or less in the same strata as the game itself: in order to debug a code problem, our heroes must fight their way through demons and Lovecraftian horrors. At the same time, the ending fight scene is so pedestrian and absurd, and oh, you saw that coming a mile away, didn't you?
But it's a great ride. And you get to sit in the head and look out the eyeballs of the heros, and Stross does a pretty good job of giving you an appreciable feel for each one of them....more
Francine is trapped in a boring, 1960s marriage with a go-getter husband who drinks too much, travels too much, and who may or may not be sleeping aroFrancine is trapped in a boring, 1960s marriage with a go-getter husband who drinks too much, travels too much, and who may or may not be sleeping around with prostitutes and other men's wives while out at one of the many conventions he attends. Her son is 16 and definitely doesn't need a mommy anymore, so Francine decides to go back to college and finish her degree. There, she meets Bake, a beautiful woman who falls madly in lust with Francine, and their relationship begins from there.
Bake gives Francine the love of her life, a sense of being alive that's precious, but Bake is a full-on Lesbian (note the caps), and the life of Lesbian is a tumultuous, impermanent one: no relationship lasts long, drinking is Bake's major hobby, and every woman has a "reason" for being a Lesbian. Francine loves Bake when she's sober, but Bake drunk is hard to deal with. Along the way, her husband and her son come to realize that Bake is more than Francine's "Sunday drive" friend, and the picnics they drive to aren't out in the country very often.
Francine angsts a lot throughout the book. There isn't much of a plot here, and by the end of the book the modern reader is going "Really? That's not a happily every after ending at all! I don't care what the author says."
The theme of the book is essentially: lesbians are shallow, sad people too mired in their own sinful nature to escape the grubbiness of their existence. Gay bars are the prima facie evidence for this. A lifetime with of your spouse and child, even if it feels unfulfilling at the moment, is better than any alternative because, really, it's what society supports the most, and you'll be dead someday, you may as well live within the well-worn groove of Kinder, Küche, Kirche, because everything else is harder, grubbier, shallower, and sadder, right?
This book is the motherhood statement delivered with an axe.
Saddest of all, the lesbian love scenes, the aftermaths of which consist of kind words and sweet lassitude, are all elided completely, whereas (view spoiler)[the scene where her husband viciously rapes her to prove his manhood is described in excrutiating detail. Lovely, no? (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Connor Wright's short story, "Gone to Pieces," appears in the ebook Don't Read In The Closet: An M/M Romance Collection. It's billed as "M/M sci-fi roConnor Wright's short story, "Gone to Pieces," appears in the ebook Don't Read In The Closet: An M/M Romance Collection. It's billed as "M/M sci-fi romance with some light BDSM elements," but that billing is so far off the mark that it seems almost mocking. What we get instead is a masturbatory sex scene between a man and a mannequin, laden with enough suggestions of sexual sadism that I'm sorta glad he has a mannequin on which to take out his frustrations rather than another human being.
Despite appearing in a romance anthology, there is no romance here. Neither character is emotionally invested in the other. The "robot," Tebri, is simply a beautiful boy mannequin with a tape recorder that says, "Yes, sir," "No, sir," and "Oh, please sir, fuck me," when triggered. Tebri is simply never depicted as being complicated enough as a robot to have genuine feelings, merely a fairly trivial decision tree over a script that could last a few hours. The protagonist, Brice, is merely a jackass managerial type who can afford a high-end sex mannequin.
(And can we please stop having every gay managerial character work as the "Gay and Lesbian Outreach Consultant to Human Resources for a Large Unnamed Corporation?" If I see another one of those, I shall scream. Can't they do something else. I'm sure there are gay janitors, programmers, truck drivers and CEOs. "GLBT Consultant" is the new "hairdresser.")
There is also no story here. There is no conflict, there is nothing to overcome. We don't even get enough of Brice's character to wonder what he could possibly be conflicted about. All he does is spank, fuck, and otherwise use his mannequin as a masturbatory relief toy, without any desire other than to relieve his sexual and personal frustrations in a blunt and somewhat passionless fashion.
There's also some bad POV management. At least twice, we get sensual details from the robot's point of view without warning. And given that the robot's persona is shallower than the entire cast of Jersey Shore, that's an uncomfortably tight space to find yourself in.
I know I'm being harsh here, but I write this stuff. And I take pains to make something out of the story, to make the story about something other than a man merely getting his rocks off. Human/robot stories are, usually, about exploring what it means to be human by eliding or changing the definition in the Other, and then trying to puzzle out what that means: what it means to feel, to love, to be angry, to be loyal. This is the basis for romance, and for conflict: the human character has to come to grips with his or her understanding of the Other, of what it means to love, and be loved by a machine, or if a human-seeming robot even has the capacity to love. Nothing like that is present in Wright's story. There is no story, no plot, no conflict, no speculation. There isn't even a couple at the heart of the story, so there's no romance. We're reading about a guy jerking off. Big Fat Hairy Deal....more
tl;dr: If you're a man, or a writer, don't read this. Just... don't. I can't speak for women who don't write.
A friend of mine recommended the Cat Star
tl;dr: If you're a man, or a writer, don't read this. Just... don't. I can't speak for women who don't write.
A friend of mine recommended the Cat Star Chronicles to me a long time ago. After all, I write catboy/catgirl smut, I should be able to enjoy some of it. So let me say off the bat that I tried, I really did, to enjoy the second book, Warrior, and in that I have failed utterly.
Here's your basic plot: In a science-fictional universe, our heroine lives on a world that has turned its back on technology. She knows her world has a starport, but nobody goes there, and in fact people teach their children that the stars, indoor plumbing, books, vaccinations, and decent communications are for crazy people. Sane people lead, and subject their children to, short, brutal lives in a sub-gunpowder world of furs and swords. She's also a "witch," which is the author's poorly-reasoned shorthand for someone with psionic powers, including talking to animals and setting stuff on fire. A supporting character drops off the romantic hero-- a cat-man supersoldier who's ill with an unspecified problem. The witch is supposed to heal him, at which point the supporting character will come back and claim his slave.
I fully believe Cheryl Brooks is a woman, rather than a man masquerading as one. And as a man, I was offended from the very first sex scene: his penis is large, prehensile, knubby in just the right way, and worst of all, exudes a pre-seminal fluid, the scent of which is a perfect aphrodisiac to humans, and the taste of which induces orgasms. It's wish-fulfillment of the worst sort. Every sex scene thereafter is built upon these premises; our characters aren't so much in love as she's addicted to opiates he exudes.
After their mutual compatibility is established, the supporting character comes back to reveal that something terrible has happened, and he needs the unified tracking skills of the witch and the cat-man to right a terrible wrong. What follows from this is a far, far too wordy journey through the snow to a distant keep and a final battle. Worse, the witch character, despite her rejection of all things technological, has the Weltanschauung of an American coastal liberal who's never thought too hard about her ethical and moral choices. She talks and she talks, often in tell-don't-show form, to the reader and the characters, pointlessly retreading the same ground in chapter after chapter. The epilogue is a piece of breathless, "Reader, you won't believe what happened next!" nonsense. I kept re-wording whole scenes in my head to show myself that important plot points could be revealed in dialogue and action without "as you knows" in front of them. An experienced writer could have done it easily.
Cat Star Chronicles: Warrior reads like an ex-valley girl hauswife decided to write something vaguely like the Kushiel series, only without education, voice, or wit. If you're a man, you'll be insulted by the hero: He's a cardboard cutout with a massive strap-on dong dripping a mixture of Astroglide and meth. If you're a writer, you'll just be insulted. ...more
Edmund Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt was recommended to me by someone who was head-deep into something called "men's studies," deliberatelyEdmund Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt was recommended to me by someone who was head-deep into something called "men's studies," deliberately named by analogy to "women's studies." He told me that Roosevelt was an example of a truly manly man, one that should be emulated by all right-thinking men.
I don't know that I agree with that. If Edmund Morris is to be believed, Roosevelt approached some apotheosis of human willpower, preternaturally blessed from birth with powers that destined him for a position of great authority. The book follows Roosevelt from his birth, through the death of his father and his first wife, to his strange adventures in the Dakota badlands, all the way up to his being Governor of New York and finally President of the United States.
Roosevelt was born a sickly child with severe asthma and a very small frame. His father doted on him to keep him alive, and when he was young bought Teddy a complete gymnasium in the basement, instructing the young man that he must "build his own body to support the mind within." He was an obsessive dilettante, studying everything that came his way enough to satisfy his curiousity that he could master it. Only two things really sparked his life-long interest, though: the natural sciences, and politics. Roosevelt kept at both throughout his career, spinning off a long series of important books about American History and North American wildlife, as well as leaving behind an impressive body of work in a variety of government roles before becoming President of the United States.
It's hard to encapsulate one man's life. The book is long-- 700 pages before the end notes! But it's a worthwhile life. You would exhaust yourself trying to emulate Roosevelt. And while it's admirable to be faithful to one's precepts and positions, Roosevelt's romantic priggishness is knee-jerk and not worthy of direct emulation; his morals make no room for human relationships that aren't also of a type sanctified by the Rick Santorum types of this world. That aside, though, Roosevelt deserves to be read, and so does his biography....more
Devon Monk's Dead Iron: The Age of Steam, #1 is a mash-up urban fantasy-meets-steampunk-meets western. Set in a 19th century Oregon small town facingDevon Monk's Dead Iron: The Age of Steam, #1 is a mash-up urban fantasy-meets-steampunk-meets western. Set in a 19th century Oregon small town facing change as the rail comes closer, Dead Iron is a satisfactorily well-written but by-the-numbers example of how steampunk ought to be written.
In Monk's formulation, the veil between faery and Earth is very thin, and a mysterious, rare substance called glim enables those blessed with the Gift of Artifice to empower marvelous steam-powered "matics" with force and capacity and will. Monk's world features mad agents of The Faery King tracking down a banished prince of faery and his dark magics, a college-professor cursed to be a werewolf by a god of an other-than-faery and now turned bounty hunter, and a witch whose only spells are vows and curses, and a chaotic good zombie. Dead Iron is the kitchen sink.
Monk's prose style is amazing. Every character's voice is utterly unique, and Monk attunes both grammar and vocabulary chapter by chapter to the needs of the point-of-view character: Bounty Hunter Ceder Hunt is lettered and well-mannered, but brutalized by his curse; witch Mae Lindstrom is simple, home-bound, but determined; the zombie's thoughts are stuttering, guttering, but driven by a savage force of will. Monk's language gives every character the room he or she needs to be clear and expressive.
The plot is solid, but predictable. Monk is very good about getting her characters center-stage and setting things in motion. It's steampunk clockwork, and not a piece is out of place as the chess game goes from opening moves to its explosive ending. She pulls new pieces into the plot smoothly and without raising your sense of disbelief, she lays down foreshadowing with skill and experience.
However, the book is not perfect. The heroes are all too damned Good, the villains too damned Evil, the ordinary townspeople too damned Stupid. Dead Iron's morality is pure fairy tale, and none of the main characters really grows much during the course of the book. Each character is led by circumstance and reconcilition with one's existing values, rather than growth and maturity or avarice and decay, from one scene to the next. They're all wonderful people, but that's about it. The book relies on language, likability, and a predictably relentless buildup to the final cinematic confrontation to sell its successor. It works, but just barely....more
Nicholson Baker writes three kinds of books: non-fiction, literary fiction, and porn. It's odd that although he's known for the phone-sex masterpieceNicholson Baker writes three kinds of books: non-fiction, literary fiction, and porn. It's odd that although he's known for the phone-sex masterpiece Vox, the only thing I'd ever read by him was The Anthologist, a wonky first-person slow-moving story about a poetry writer and editor with a near-fatal case of writer's block. It was well-written and has a solid voice. So when his latest porn novel, House of Holes was released, I had to buy a copy.
House of Holes is an homage to the Golden Age of Porn that began in 1972 with Behind the Green Door and ended, thirteen years later, with New Wave Hookers. In it, Baker reveals three secrets about porn from that era that we should all be aware of.
First, there are only two kinds of women-shaped creatures in porn. But neither are really human women. The first are almost human women, but they lack a terribly deep inner life. They attempt to go about their daily business, but they all have a kind of attention-deficit disorder where the suggestion of sex may overwhelm their attention at any moment, turning them into happy, cock-hungry fuckbunnies. A rare few are fuckbunnies in potentia, but this can be resolved within a day or two. If no cock is available, at least an orgasm must happen and another woman will do. When all else fails, she can do it herself. The second kind are man-eaters, always on but exhaustingly dangerous to know.
Secondly, the men in porn are ordinary men. Most of them are confused about sex, confused about what women want-- even when said women are simply cock-hungry-- and confused about their place in a world full of maneaters and fuckbunnies. They're just trying to get along and get laid. Some are well-hung, some aren't; some can last a long time, some can't. They like a little variety, but can be tempted to a long span of monogamy by a particularly beautiful or wonderful woman, and sex doesn't really enter into their motives for a relationship. It can, however, tempt a man to do wrong.
Third, Golden Age Porn is absolutely full of magical realism. For no explicable reason, and often with an "it happens" shrug of the shoulders, clitori move to unfamiliar parts of the body, men swap penises, penises and vaginas develop minds and voices of their own, various accessories (hats, scarves, belts, shoes, watches) give people unusual powers, usually to either spy on people having sex or increase the user's chances of having sex. And over all there is just a sudden increase in people having sex: the pornoverse is a localized phenomenon, inconvenient but hardly tragic.
House of Holes is written like an acid-trip magical realism porn film, only put into the hands of a respected literary writer. The book opens up with Shandee who, while walking in the woods, comes across an arm. Just an arm. It waves at her, and she takes it home. Giving it a piece of paper and a pen, it introduces itself: "Hi, I'm Dave's arm." They have a conversation about how Dave's arm came to be independent of Dave: It turns out that, at the House of Holes, if you want a bigger dick, you have to give up another appendage to get it. You can get the arm back, but you have to fulfill a contractual obligation. The owner of the House, an ancient wise woman named Lila, knows exactly the right obligation.
There are all sorts of weird, arbitrary rules at the House, and a thousand and one different ways to have fun. Thousands of men, in quest of a great orgasm, have chosen to give up their penises in order to let the "jizm" build. The Hall of Penises has all of these, poking up, sagging down, all waiting to be re-united with their former owners. If someone else wants an especially large one, he might get it from that Hall, but only in exchange for a finger, or an arm, or something.
But it's 70's porn: nobody is mean, everyone says "please" and "thank you," and the banality of the porniverse is that, for these people, it's a pleasure as ordinary and as mainstream, and as separate from real human sex, as any porn film ever can be. It's blissfully a long way from the cruel gonzo porn that's fortunately fading away to a low roar.
If there's a weakness to the book, it's the way the literary form shows just how much the women of 70's porn were like William James' Automatic Sweetheart, "a soulless body which should be absolutely indistinguishable from a spiritually animated maiden, laughing, talking, blushing, nursing us, and performing all feminine offices as tactfully and sweetly as if a soul were in her." Books take us where movies cannot, into the mind of a character. For most of the women in House of Holes, there's no "there" there. To me, that expectation often ruined my suspension of disbelief.
Some reviewers, I think, read too much into the "horror" nature of the way Shandee has a loving relationship with Dave's arm, or Reese gets off with a "sexbody," a male body who's head is in cold storage, waiting to be reunited with the rest of his studly, getting laid, but generally mindless anatomy. For all we know, Baker was analogizing the way we compartmentalize our awareness that the food on our plates comes from cruel factory farms, or that our sexy life-conveniencing iPods are put together with slave labor. He's not saying.
There are some moments that come across with authorial voice, such as the character of Hax, whose mission is to convince women that their nakedness is beautiful-- and Hax has a long soliloquy about how both tattoos and shaved pubes are often forms of hiding one's self. Or the character of Dune, who says that all of the House of Holes, and its concentration on variety and fetish, is "too much," and that what one really needs for good sex is a man and a woman, "not too fat."
There are a lot of short scenes, set-ups of people doing it or planning to do it or getting ready to do it, with titles like "Shandee finds Dave's Arm," or "Dune takes a walk on the Boardwalk." They follow a small cast of people through this weird, psychedelic landscape.
House of Holes is sexy, inventive, and funny. It's also exhausting, full of a kind of humanity that is as distant from us as the New Soviet Man or the Randian Hero. It says things about human beings and about sex by showing wonderfully, creepily inhuman people having sex. But if you like really well-written, witty, and genuinely inventive erotica, I strongly recommend House of Holes. It has set a new standard, and if you're going to write erotica from this day forward, it is a standard that will challenge all of us....more
I picked out Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette, based on a comment by a friend of mine. The comment was many months in the past, so I was surprised toI picked out Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette, based on a comment by a friend of mine. The comment was many months in the past, so I was surprised to stumble across the book at the local library. I read it through-- it's only 80 pages or so-- and I have to say that I'm disappointed.
Manchette is thought to be France's greatest roman noir writer, with a kind of post-modern hardboiled sensibility. Fatale is supposed to be one of his best works, but I didn't see it.
(view spoiler)[In Fatale, we meet a woman we learn is named Aimée walking in the woods. She wanders in among a group of hunters far afield from a small French town, who express surprise that she's both dressed to hunt, and even there, since she had said she was leaving town soon. She proceeds to kill all of them. She then retrieves a mysterious satchel from a locker at a train station, boards a train, and undergoes a complete transformation from raven-haired beauty to blonde bombshell, along with a number of other physical changes to obscure her appearance. She heads for the small coastal town of Bleville.
Aimée is a hired killer. She hires herself. She goes from town to town, posing as a gorgeous but naive recent widow "with some money," and worms her way into the local upper crust of the town's society. The book is set in the 1970s, when even a medium-sized town depended mostly on rail and postal service for contact with the outside world, and television was three channels, one-way. Eventually, she learns, and then leverages, the internal hatreds of the wealthy into a willingness to commit murder, then tells one of the parties involved that she knows "a man" who will kill the other party for money.
In the story Manchette tells us, Aimée screws up. She kills a victim whom every member of the town hates, and then she feels sorry for him. (hide spoiler)]
But here's the weird thing. For all the praise that this book gets, we never really get a clear reason why Aimée changes her mind. I've re-read the section in the middle where "the wrench" happens, and Aimée's motives are completely opaque. I'm sure Manchette meant, in his middle-passage sections where she returns to Paris to visit her mother, and has an unpleasant encounter with a masher at the train station, to reveal something about her character, but it's incomplete. Perhaps Manchette meant to say something like "Aimée is incomplete as a human being." But his third-person, completely objective, absolutely literal and linear narrative, also gives us an Aimée that is incomplete as a character. Without an appreciation for her and her motives, we're left with a vague, unsatisfying (but to a modern audience, hardly novel or unsettling) portrait of an evil-doer as avenging angel.
I looked twice into this book to try and find what was supposed to be "comedic." The opening chapter is stunning in its brutality, which is why the rest of the book fails, at least for me: its follow-on contrasts are weak, its characters poorly sketched and unconvincing, its crisis is arbitrary and its denouement is a mess.
I feel let down by a book so highly praised. At least it was a quick read.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Unfortunately, Hudson's book isn't a Stephen King (or even Stephen Coontz) work of fiction. It is horror, but it's not fiction. It's an investigation into the way mortgage-backed securitization, the mainstreaming of home equity lending, and a look-the-other-way regulatory regime, all combined into a perfect shit storm to wreck the American economy and destroy the middle class.
While the book concentrates on a few characters, the centerpiece being the late Roland Arnall, CEO of Ameriquest, its real villain is the root of all evil, money. In their quest for it, Ameriquest, First American Mortgage, and other mortgage brokers first reframed the once disreputable second mortgage, something you only took out if you were in desperate and dire straits, into the pleasant-seeming and even fair "home equity loan" or "home equity line of credit."
Although, as JP Morgan now admits, not only did incomes not grow during the Bush administration, but corporate accounts grew only because wages and benefits for the middle class were squeezed, we still bought cars and houses. How? With those equity lines of credit. With money we didn't have.
The Monster shows that not only was America's growth during the Bush Administration illusory, it was fraudulent. While salesmen with thousands of calls sold to people barely familiar with their first mortgage, much less their second, they were also doctoring the images, timing meetings to make sure customers were ill-prepared and time-pressured to just sign it all without reading it, and sometimes aggressively pressuring people to just sign. Back at "the lab," (a nickname some Ameriquest offices had for the office's copy room, where Wite-Out and scissors were used to creative effect), the loan paperwork would be doctored to reflect higher percentage rates, balloon fees, and other nightmares. Sometimes signers were given huge stacks to sign, not knowing that they were signing two mortgages, one of which was to be thrown out.
The entire disaster was a Ponzi scheme in which securitization (the conversion of bundles of mortgages into market-tradeable entities) fed huge funds into the system, and then groaning mortgages and other debts extracted huge funds from the wallets of ordinary citizens. When the music stopped, there were a lot of chairs missing, and a lot of people fell down. The current wave of foreclosures is not just because people lost their jobs in the disaster; it's because they lost their jobs after 10 million of them mistakenly bought mortgages they did not understand and did not appreciate were worse than their current mortgage.
The title of the book comes from a missing chapter in the First American Mortgage Co's sales manual. There were seven chapters, which had all kinds of psychological tricks for getting a customer to sign. (The most "cute" of which was that a salesman would always introduce himself three times-- once in the lobby of the sales office, then again after another person had lead the mark to his office, and a third time, after he had left the office on a contrived errand and returned. The idea was that the mark, having now "met" this salesman three times, was no longer convinced the he was a stranger but an acquaintance and possibly a friend.) "The Monster" was the secret chapter eight, a word-of-mouth only class-- sales trainees were forbidden from taken notes-- in which an old hand taught the sales trainees how to make a higher mortgage, with higher points and fees, look better than the mark's current mortgage. "Press the mark to hear the initial payment, make them ignore the refinancing fees, adjustable rate, or ballon payment, steer them clear, always say 'you hear their concerns' or 'that won't be a problem,' then steer them back to hearing the initial payment rate. Show them how a shorter-term mortgage will 'save them money' while making you rich."
Another mortgage company's president described his company's "LTV 80/20" as "the mortgage equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction." An LTV is the Loan-To-Value, that is, the ratio of the initial loan versus what the bank expects the value of the house to be when the loan ends. An LTV higher than 65% is generally considered a poor loan. The 80/20 loan was two mortgages issued simultaneously through two separate shell mortgage companies, for a total LTV of 100%! All of these companies had LTV loans in the 70%-85% range. These guys knew what they were selling.
And if he thought that was a weapon of mass destruction, I have to wonder what he thought of the third-party collateralized debt obligations and other "synthetic securitization" packages.
Hudson is a reporter, and he doesn't flinch at showing how many villains there were. The Federal Trade Commission comes in for a particular bashing as, in 2004, commissioners said "If there were any problems [in the mortgage industry], we would have heard about them," when in fact an average of 400 complaints a month were hitting their office. He shows how ACORN, that bugaboo of the right, was suborned by Ameriquest with supporting money into "looking the other way" as Ameriquest rampaged through poorly-educated minority neighborhoods in a deliberate and systematic way.
The Monster is a horror, but it's the reality in which we live. It's a picture of how one section of the financial industry blew up its alchemical laboratory, hid America's deeper flaws until it was too late, and transferred wealth up to Lehman Brothers, the biggest bank involved in sub-prime securitization. It shows how a well-educated, well-trained, motivated, unregulated, conscience-free industry set out to make money without limits, and in the process destroyed a once great nation....more
No, really. If you've read a Culture novel, you know what you're in foSurface Detail is Iain M. Banks latest Culture novel, and... that's about it.
No, really. If you've read a Culture novel, you know what you're in for: a series of novelletish vignettes featuring a vast cast of characters, from all different types, two of which (the corporate sociopath and the political sociopath) will crop up, be lectured to by some nominal "good" protagonist, and eventually fall from grace and probably be killed in some gruesome manner.
If Banks applies himself at all in Surface Detail, it is in his depictions of Hell. Literal Hell in this case. The plot of Surface Detail surrounds those civilizations, similar in technological level to The Culture, that continue to maintain Hells: places where uploaded, digital consciouness are tortured for as long as a given civilization's Powers That Be deem they be tortured. They believe that the existence of Hell, and the threat of it, are necessary to maintain peace and order in their civ/species/polity. The Culture, and other like-minded civs, are convinced that the pro-Hell forces are barbarians, and that the galaxy would be better off without Hell.
The story goes off like a Banks novel, with the usual clockwork-with-some-pieces-missing plotting that is Banks's hallmark. There's a slave girl with a tattoo who somehow ends up halfway across the galaxy and tattoo-less; she fucks her way back to her homeworld for a chance to kill her former master. There's a Culture specialist in dealing with the dead (more on that in a paragraph) who gets caught up in trying to track someone down and help them deal with their death. There's an alien species lifted out of Well World that has Hells, and two politically motivated researchers who break into Hell in order to return and report about it. There are some Culture operatives working to tamp down an outbreak of violently hegemonizing smartmatter, that turns out to be something military involved with something about the political battle over Hells. And there's the secret agent involved in a long-running, publicly visible gladiatorial match between the pro- and anti-Hell forces, having their own referee'd war in the bizarre belief that the side with the strongest moral strength ought to win: the pro-Hells want the anti-Hells to stop lecturing them, and the anti-Hells want the pro-Hells to shut it all down.
Banks' weakness here is that he remains ideologically wed to a personally idiosyncratic vision of humanity. People of The Culture live 400 years, and then cheerfully knock themselves off. Those who don't are considered narcissistic and self-obsessed, since they won't make room for the next generation. When they die, they may choose to spend eternity in a digital retirement zone, indistinguishable from the real universe. There's an entire division of Contact devoted to dealing with these people, called Quietus. The distinction between "I'm a digital person now. I got killed, but as I haven't lived out my 400 years, it is entirely appropriate for me to have a new body made and be reinstantiated in it, but while I'm waiting for it to grow I'll hang out in this paradisical setting," and "I'm a dead person, living out a digital afterlife in a paradisical setting," is bizarrely rigid and universal in his galaxy. It's as if Banks's people have the technology to tune, affect, influence, adapt, modify, and duplicate themselves, but only within narrow notions of Banks's own expectations of mortality.
The other problem is also classic Banks: the two most interesting characters are shuffled around on the stage but Banks doesn't really know what to do with them, once he's done with them. Prin and Chay, the characters from Well World, the ones who break into Hell, have the best story in the book. Chay, especially, but it peters out into the end after Banks has done an especially masterful job of speeding Chay through harrowing Hell after harrowing Hell. Prin, on the other hand, is Banks' mouthpiece: he delivers Banks's lecture to the audience about the Evils of Believing Threat of Pain Is Necessary To Maintaining Social Order. There's supposed to be a big confrontation after this speech is given. Banks never lets us see it. Prin had done his job, and is shuffled off-screen.
Surface Detail is a better book than Matter or Transition, Banks's last Culture and non-Culture SF. (His non-Culture, non-SF The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I haven't read.) It has the vast stage, the wonderous setting, but the sensawunda and shock-and-awe of The Wasp Factory or Use of Weapons is long since gone. ...more