I will confess that I put off reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland for months simply because the story opens at Burning Man. Back when it came out I bought it, put it on my ereader and read the first few pages and went Ugh. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s just the kind of book that needs to be read in summer. In any case this time I was ready for it and really liked the book.
Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, but in this one Marcus has graduated from high school and dropped out of university and is trying to get by in our modern economy, which gets him involved in politics. There are plot points about leaking politically sensitive materials and surveillance and hacking party politics to reflect what real people (or at least tech-savvy San Franciscans) care about. It’s pretty great, and sadly topical.
The topicality is a big part of what I like about this book. Aaron Swartz wrote the afterword and it’s great. The book did have a bunch of Doctorow’s essayistic explanatory tics (you read a lot about cold-brewed coffee in this book) but it feels more like a novel with excited explanations than a polemic with a plot. But there’s enough information in it to be inspiring.
It’s the kind of book I’d like lots of people to read, not just high school students. It was enough of a kick in the ass for me to finally root my old phone and install Tor on it, so if you measure a book by how it changes behaviour this was a good one.
Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music is a scifi noir story very heavy on the noir. In a world with uplifted kangaroos and apes and accelerated-development babies, Conrad Metcalf is trying to solve a murder. And then another and another. He’s an ex-cop and has his custom drugs to keep him feeling the exact right level of ennui and tenacity, while the victims and witnesses take drugs to forget. It’s pretty great.
One of the things I really like about the book is the dual economic systems going on. There’s money and there’s karma. Karma is what the cops take away when you do bad things, and what you get given when you’re a model citizen. It’s a bit more centralized than Cory Doctorow’s Whuffle but you can see the connective strands. The thing is that when your karma hits zero you go into a freezer, and are removed from society for a while, which makes my favourite part of the book possible.
[SPOILERS] About 3/4 of the way through the book Conrad pisses off enough people he gets tossed in the freezer for six years. This is awesome for the story because when he gets out it’s like that time passed overnight. He’s even more dogged about solving his case now that everyone else has had years to deal with the aftermath. [/SPOILERS]
So yes, definitely recommended especially if you liked George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Falls
Steampunk: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories is in our library’s YA section. Which is fine as far as it goes – I’m more than happy to recommend it to teens – but there’s nothing about it that really demands YAness. Perhaps it’s just easier than trying to figure out if steampunk is science fiction or fantasy.
Anyway, the stories Kelly Link got for this collection are pretty excellent. Cory Doctorow’s “Clockwork Fagin” is about a Dickensian orphanage where the children kill their cruel master, make an automaton to fool their funders and self-organize into a worker’s collective. There are time-stopping train robberies and ancient Romans dealing with clockwork oracles, but they story that hit me most in the feels was Dylan Horrocks’ “Steam Girl.” It’s about a contemporary high school boy who meets a girl dressed in a leather flight helmet who’s an excellent storyteller about this heroine from Mars.
I’m becoming a fan of suggesting anthologies to readers at the library because of the sampler effect that helps people find what it is they really like. Steampunk! will be suggested by me.
I’m going to hit the reset button on my book reviews because I let them go for too long and the thought of writing 22 posts fills me with a kind of dread. But here are some highlights.
I’ve read a few books by writers who’re coming to our local writing festival next month. Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt was my favourite of those.
The only comic I read and loved recently was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. I loved it so much I feel like I need to write a huge essay about it, and probably will eventually.
I even read some nonfiction! (To me books about writing and literature don’t feel like nonfiction, which is why I separate these out from the two in the previous paragraph.) Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English was a great layperson’s guide to some linguistic issues with the language I know best, and David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology was a good articulation of some issues I think I need to be writing more about.
There were some other things too, including finally getting to Pirate Cinema, which was yes, a novel, but a preachy one in a really good way. That will probably get a real review here as it falls squarely in my professional interests.
So yeah. Books. Reading. I’ve also been doing three storytimes a week since February started and our library’s Teen Advisory Group finally had its inaugural meeting yesterday. It’s been kind of busy.
I’d read the Appeals Court part of Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross’ The Rapture of the Nerds when it was first published a few years ago and thought it was kind of meh. This version has two more stories to flesh out the story into more of a book, and the last section makes it worth reading.
I don’t know. I guess the early bits about the messenger and the being called into techno court are okay, but so much of it seems like an excuse to just toss a bunch of ideas together. I appreciated the gender-switching as Huw got incarnated differently through the story and the family relationships, but mostly the book didn’t really do it for me, until Huw had her years-long sulk in part three.
It wasn’t bad, just not highly recommended.
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an sf novel that was just released to a lot of hype (in my part of the internet at least). I got the Kindle edition because paper books in Australia are crazy expensive. It was a fine book, but I wonder if it panders just a bit too much to its target audience.
The story is set three decades into the Great Recession (you know, the one we’re living through the beginning of right now). A company designed an excellent immersive reality software environment in 2012 called the OASIS. It’s released for free (monetized through in-universe transportation costs, not through ads) and becomes a really excellent way for people to escape from the crushingly shitty existence of non-uber-wealthy life. (There are two-year waitlists for jobs at McDonalds in this Recession.)
Five years before the story begins the creator of OASIS died, and in his will, the company and all his wealth go to whoever could find the three keys hidden in OASIS. He was worth megabillions so this is a big deal. But unlike most corporate sweepstakes kinds of things this one was actually difficult and when the story begins for real most people have given up on the idea of winning those billions. Except for our protagonist, Parzival, a dirt-poor kid from the States, who’s part of the gunter (egg-hunter) subculture.
So the story is a classic quest novel, with all the stuff happening in OASIS, and dealing with the real world when he has to. What Cline’s done though is have Halliday (the dead billionaire who made the puzzle) obsessed with the 1980s. Knowing 1980s pop culture as well as Halliday is the key way to solve the puzzles. And while it’s kind of a clever way to include Star Wars (and Ferris Bueller and Dungeons and Dragons and Firefly and Back to the Future and all the other 80s stuff people like myself grew up on) references, it kind of lost its appeal a ways in. I think it was the reference to Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton being elected the presidents of OASIS year after year. It felt a little too much like fanservice to let me take the story seriously (or something).
As far as quest stories go, it’s good. Well structured, with clear bad guys who want to win the quest so they have control of the OASIS and can monetize it with ads and subscription fees and will kill (and more importantly cheat at the game) to get their way. I’d have no problem recommending it to YA readers or adults looking for something light. But it’s not “the best SF novel I’ve read in a decade” (as Mark Faruenfelder called it). There’s too much fanservice and not enough oomph (or beauty) to it in my opinion.
I wrote about spimes and blogging affordances on librarianautica.
An excellent book about the design of technology and how things work is Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things. It’s one of my favourite nonfiction books and it’s all about what our tools allow us to do and make us do. The idea is that technology has moved through different stages through history, affording us different roles.
Sterling traces the history of tools from artifacts (farmers’ tools) to machines (customers’ devices) to products (customers’ purchases) to gizmos (end-users’ platforms) and to the future, which is defined by what Sterling calls Spimes.
A Spime is a location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified object that flings off data about itself and its environment in great quantities. A universe of Spimes is an informational universe, and it is the use of this information that informs the most exciting part of Sterling’s argument.
The book came out in 2005, but as Foursquare and all the other locative services continue to gain traction, that spimey future looks a lot closer.
In regards to the specific affordances of blogging I find it funny that as Twitter gets taken up, blogging is where people are going to express their lengthy thoughts. Blogging as the means of talking out serious issues instead of just tossing off a couple of one-liners with a good hashtag isn’t something I expected when I began. But blogging is a platform for putting different subject matter into. Twitter is awesome for jokes and conversation. Way better than a blog where you have to go through the monumental effort of publishing your text. It takes multiples of seconds to log in and pick New Post and all that. So terribly slow. (And seriously, as qwerty keyboards on phones are replaced with touchscreens the annoyance of typing out anything more than 140 characters at a time does make Twitter more attractive.)
And then there’s this interesting post on how Twitter beats Google+, which twists the idea of expressing complete thoughts from a single brain further. The thesis there is that G+ isn’t a new enough medium, because storytelling there feels too much like blogging, and isn’t as collaborative as the exquisite corpseishness that is Twitter.
But maybe I’m just a stick in the mud with wanting things to come from one mind and human’s fingers (ignoring the publishing machine behind everything. I like the myth of the heroic individual that’s enabled by the culture of blogging. What about you?
Cory Doctorow’s For The Win is about goldfarmers and unions and economics. It’s a good primer on all these issues, but as per usual, I feel like the novel was more of an excuse for Doctorow to write in-character mini-essays. Not to say they weren’t good essays, but yeah. The man definitely has opinions.
The idea is this: in-game economies are huge and underground and are worth more than a lot of countries. These economies are based on rare in-game items (magic gatling-swords) that you can only get by playing a long long time. When people have more money than time they can pay someone else for those benefits. This gives rise to ‘gold-farming’ which is where people play the game, grinding out tasks to collect items that can then be sold for real money. This is illegal but prevalent in game worlds. The Guardian recently did a story on how Chinese labour camps are making their prisoners gold-farm.
For The Win looks at this issue as a workers’ rights issue. These gold-farmers work for bosses, playing the games and generating revenue. The big question of the book is, since these economies are so huge what happens if the workers organize? Don’t the workers have power? There’s interaction between the organizing gamers and the “real-life” unions who don’t understand how that transnational kind of organization would work, and people dismissing it all as just a game anyway. There are a lot of cool ideas in the book.
The characters are a multinational bunch and generally likable. Doctorow’s good at giving you the “villain’s” perspective as well as your heroes’. There’s a lot in there that seems like it’s in there for no reason (WeiDong going to China in a customized shipping container thing is the main thing that bugged me in that regard). The explanations of interesting social experiments to do with money and economies and envy are interesting, but I feel like I’d like them to be integrated better into the story or separated out a bit (I think Neal Stephenson and Peter Watts both do a similar sorts of thing better, often by putting the essays into endnotes or appendices).
The other completely annoying thing was the advertisements for Cory’s favourite bookstores that ended every scene for the first half to two-thirds of the book. I don’t know if those are in the paper version or just the free-to-download .epub version I got from his website, but man oh man did I hate those interruptions. That’s something that would have been fine as footnotes, but bang right in the middle of the text, just angered me.
But yeah, it’s an interesting book for the economics of it all. If you’re an economist it might frustrate you with its explanations being too simplified or something but it was pretty good for interested layperson.
I read Cory Doctorow’s Makers on the plane to China and early in my bakery hanging out time. It was the ebook version I got for free from his website and loaded onto my ereader, so it’s DRM-free.
So Makers is about these inventors who create new things and then move on. It’s sf in that it is the future and there are new technologies they use and make use of, but it’s a very recognizable near future. Some of the interesting things in the story are fatkins, a way of dealing with obesity by basically ramping up your metabolism so you need to eat 10000 calories a day. There’s a bit more to it than that. So there are these inventors and the first part of the book is them getting into business making cool shit. Then the next part of the book is about after their new economy sort of collapses in on itself, they get into the theme-park business. It’s Cory Doctorow, what can you expect. I still don’t get theme-parks but whatever.
The first part of the book is very explainy. “Here’s this neat thing and how it works and isn’t that cool?” but it gradually does build into a story that works. It’s no Little Brother, but it’s inspiring in its own way. Actually making stuff and then moving on seems like the way to run a business. Not just having your hand in the next person’s pocket. But you need to be wildly creative to do that and not everyone is.