Simon Morden’s Equations of Life is a pretty good Gibson-esque near future SF-noir book. Samuil Petrovich is a PhD student in London after Armageddon (which was not religious in nature, just a global catastrophe that sunk Japan, rained poison and generally made the world suck). When the story starts he interferes with a kidnapping and then things spiral into quantum computing, riots and eloquent gangsters threatening clueless American programmers. It’s a quick moving book and Petrovich is a very competent protagonist, who rides luck and resources he doesn’t explain till late in the book.
The thing I liked least was Petrovich’s cursing in Russian. It seemed manufactured and didn’t fit the rhythms of the rest of his dialogue. I kept on picturing the author asking his Russian friends for really vulgar curses and then consulting the list whenever he needed to make Petrovich look tough. Which is fair enough I guess. It just brought me out of it.
But generally it was a good little book. I enjoyed how Petrovich had a very weak heart, so all of his Russian cursing and bad-assness was not paired with any real physical impressiveness.
I read The Great Railway Bazaar long after reading Paul Theroux’s book about revisiting his journey thirty years later. I liked the revisiting book better, possibly because the society Theroux was writing to in the 2000s is more like the society I think of myself a part of.
The parts I liked were the parts about the trains themselves. I too am a lover of trains and riding on them and could gladly let riding a train be the entirety of a vacation. I also appreciated the Vietnam chapters because this was written so close to the war and things felt weird and on edge there. But this book had more than just riding on trains. It had a lot of grand statements by a white guy about the cultures he was passing through. I can see a lot of similarity to myself there too, and, well, it was kind of ugly.
Theorux makes all these sweeping statements that seem to have no compassion for any of his subjects. I didn’t get that feeling from his book as an older man. Maybe I’ve just heard enough of what people who look like me have to say about travelling through Asia. And maybe that’s why I liked the Vietnam sections; his compassionless comments were directed at Americans and other foreigners instead of the people whose homes he was cruising through.
Subduction is a book about a young doctor banished to an island full of elderly people who won’t abandon it just because earthquakes threaten it. It’s an interesting story and has art by LJC Shimoda that’s beautiful, but doesn’t really add much to the tale being told. There are three young people on the island and they get involved in a weird little relationship triangle while the doctor is told stories about everyone who lives there. I liked the framing of these stories well enough, but the whole book felt like it was trying very hard to be a Haruki Murakami novel. The big reveals in the ending were a bit too melodramatic and silly for my taste, but if you can swallow them the whole thing isn’t too bad. There’s a melancholy feeling about this dying island that Shimoda conveyed very well.
David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch in Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century. Jacob is a clerk who’s there to make his fortune so he can go back home to marry. Things don’t work out as he’d hoped and he has to become much better at politics than he was on arrival.
Mitchell splits up the narrative between a few different viewpoint characters in the book, which gives us not just the colonial perspective on what’s going on. The most troublesome part of the book for me was the nefarious practices going on in the mountain abbey. While the rest of the book felt like a more-restrained part of The Baroque Cycle, the abbey rumours were exceedingly pulpy and over the top. It made for a weird tone, since I wasn’t sure if the overly lurid doings were supposed to be taken seriously or if they were being overdone as a statement about exoticization/orientalism or if they were just weird.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is the story of a group of Japanese soldiers in World War 2 who are stationed on the South Pacific island of New Britain in 1943. There’s no one character that’s the hero, just a bunch of poor saps who have malaria, malnutrition and get eaten by alligators. It’s bleak as hell.
The characters are drawn in this cartoony style while the backgrounds and animals are very detailed, which is an interesting effect. I feel it put me in their shoes as the rookies got slapped for no reason, or as they decided they needed to eat their fill before going on their suicide mission. This kind of manga is a bit different from what the kids these days are all about, but this was a really good comic.
Goliath is a fitting conclusion to Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. While Leviathan and Behemoth both referred to Darwinist creations in their titles, Goliath is an electrical super-weapon designed by Nikola Tesla to end the Great War.
The story follows Alek and Deryn as they ride the airship Leviathan over Siberia to Japan then California, Mexico and New York. The plot in this one was a little bit less urgent and more episodic. Alek is desperately trying to find a way to end the war, but can only really find a role in being an assistant to Tesla, while Deryn’s disguise as a boy is the big thing at risk for her in the book. It relied a bit more on meeting real people from history than the previous books as well.
But the climax was thrilling and fit the story perfectly, there were giant fighting bears (sadly not in the climax) and the thing ends happily. Good steampunk; great story.
365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice is a fat little book by J.P. Kalonji that took practically no time to read. That’s because each page is a single panel and probably 90% of them are wordless. You don’t need a lot of words when your story is about a swordsman wearing a beast’s hide who’s on a quest to kill 365 samurai so he can discover the meaning of life.
The book is full of people being startled at their sudden demise and leaping silhouettes and blood in the snow. It’s a beautiful story of moments in black and white, and by the end it has the feeling of a parable. A bleak, filled-with-death parable of enlightenment.
I found a manga I really like! Planetes is a science fiction story about three astronauts who work on the trash detail, cleaning debris out of Earth’s orbit. Hachimaki wants to be an exploration type astronaut with his own ship some day, Yuri lost his wife on his first trip up to space and Fee is the working stiff who pilots the ship and keeps them safe.
There are five stories in this first volume and they cover a good range, from the romance of junk-collecting (complete with last second rescue) to the psychological trauma of surviving an EVA accident. The stories have enough giant-mouth screaming to still feel like a manga book, but it’s all in the service of really solid science fiction. I don’t think there are as many volumes of this at the library as Death Note (which I tried reading but it didn’t do anything for me – consider that my review) but I’m going to grab what there is and keep reading.
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is a manga series by Eiji Ohtsuka and Housui Yamazaki about a group of Buddhist students who, well, dispose of corpses. Not just in a mortuarial sense, but in the getting the dead their closure kind of sense. The main character can speak with the dead and find out why they are restless. Another guy is like a dowser for corpses. One girl was trained in embalming in the States (evidently it’s not a common practice in Japan). There’s a kid with a puppet channeling alien voices.
The stories aren’t bad. They feel very manga like in the broad strokes the characters are painted in. I think my favourite story in this volume was the old woman in a cabinet they carried all over the place until they found a monk who’d made an urban version of Dendari Fields, from an old poem. That story worked much better than the guy who was cutting bodies up and stitching them into patchwork creatures for the sake of a campfire tale.
I have had Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt on my “To Read” list for ages. Now it isn’t there anymore, having moved to the “I must bore everyone I know talking about this because I love it” list.
The book tells the story of a number of souls. Well, they’re more Buddhist than that, like assemblages of characteristics. They encounter each other and try to make the world better. They’re Persian or Chinese or Japanese or other subjects of the great empires of the world since the 14th century. There’s one who is a dreamer and one who desires justice and one who is happy. They find themselves on opposite sides of ideologies from their previous lives and in bodies of different genders and cultures and occupations. Sometimes we see them after they have died and they’re getting their souls redistributed in the bardo where they can have a bit more meta- attitude about the point of their lives and going back again and again and how they should do better the next time.
Each section takes place at a different critical point in history when these souls (whose human names begin with the same letter every life as a mnemonic) try to live and improve the world. It’s so good, and makes me so sad that all my conversations with friends are about what kind of jobs we’ll be able to find. The scale of the story is so big, so pan-human that anything else feels so petty.
The other thing about this book is that it is an alternate history. In the 13th century plague wiped out most everyone in Europe, so all the history is different from that point on. The ancient Greeks and Romans are known, but Christians have been lost to history (much like we’d think of druids today). The whole colonization of the New World is a competition between China and the Muslim world coming at it from opposite oceans. Things are different but similar all throughout the book. The indigenous people of North America resisted colonization in different ways because being exposed to smallpox in smaller batches meant there was less genocide by germs. And feminist Islam is different and the development of nuclear power is there but different.
I’m sure that if you wanted to examine the choices Robinson made in creating this alternate history critically you could see it as its own exoticizing racist colonialist terrible thing. I read it more as a book about possibilities and loved it. The language wasn’t systematic in what it made unrecognizable but it was enough to remind you that things are different in this world even as the beings living through it feel like nothing is changing. It’s exactly what I want fiction to do so I loved this book.