Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky is great. The main characters start off as a couple of weird kids, one who talks to birds and another who builds a two-second time machine, and the story is about how they, well, interact is a clinical word, but it’s an appropriate one. Each of them embodies a different way of looking at the world off-kilterly, one through nature-magic and the other through mad-science.
It’s really good, but don’t expect it to feel realistic. For the first third of the book I was unsure why this wasn’t marketed as a more science-fictional Eleanor & Park. As kids there’s an assassin sent to deal with them but he’s not allowed to directly kill minors so he becomes their guidance counsellor and becomes really well-liked in that role. Then there’s a time jump to adulthood and the fate of the world starts to become an issue (and it loses some of that YA romance feeling). Later in the book it feels much more like The Magicians, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Makers or Seveneves.
One issue might be its optimism in the face of the end of the world, like there’s going to be an escape valve that we’ll actually all be okay. I think it walked the line well, but your mileage may vary.
Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger is his latest space opera and it is not very good. I often pick up one of his books thinking, “Why haven’t I read one of these in a while?” I was 2% into this one when I remembered.
It’s all tell and no show. Reynolds has characters that are cardboard standups engaging in cliche actions that anyone who’s ever read or watched better science fiction will see coming a million leagues away. In some of his previous space operas I know there’ve been enough good bits that I could deal with the plodding language, but none of that is in Revenger.
I can’t recommend such a formulaic and blah space opera, not when there’s such good stuff happening in the field these days. The Stars are Legion is a zillion times better than this, as is Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (though that has more of a military sf aspect).
Ego is the Enemy is a self-help book by Ryan Holiday. He takes inspiration from stoicism and business-people and artists to show how the problems facing the reader are all about ego and thinking as people we deserve anything in this life.
I read it because I’m passingly interested in the Stoics, especially in how they’re being brought back today, but this book is kind of an illustration of what happens when un-deep thinkers get a hold of ancient thoughts. I didn’t disagree with a lot of what he said, but it was very obvious this is a writer who has only had well-off white dude problems. Just accepting things and taking your licks is fine for people who are supported by the system that wants them to succeed (eg well-off white dudes in capitalism) but terrible advice for people who are getting trampled by the status quo.
This is a book designed to stave off the revolution, not change the world.
Bob Holmes’ Flavor is a popular science book about the sense we use that’s one of the hardest to put into words. Holmes has interviewed scientists working on taste, smell, neuropsychology, genetics, soil composition, molecular gastronomy (and more) to really get into what we mean when we talk about how things taste, because it’s far more complicated than those old four-taste tongue diagrams you might remember.
One of the big takeaways from the book is that the difference between professional tasters (like wine-experts) and amateurs is more about the attention they pay and the vocabulary they have practiced with than anything specific in their tongues. It’s written in a light humorous fashion and though I would have liked a bit more in-depth explanation on a few points (how do we know a nerve is transmitting at maximum intensity?) this definitely provided enough facts to make me a bit of an insufferable dining companion.
Kevin Van Tighem has written about Alberta’s environment, and his concern for it, for over thirty years. Our Place is a collection of those heartfelt, thoughtful, researched essays.
The book is organized by themes so you get fishing pieces together, and hunting ones together, and the whole idea of segmenting up something that is large and whole get put together. This approach means the footnotes can get a little sad, especially when you read a hopeful essay from the 1980s where the hope didn’t really work out.
Even if you are not a hunter or a fisher, his writing about those practices is evocative and persuades the reader to appreciate the attention they reward. But in the end, what I appreciated most about the book was Van Tighem’s sense of the connectedness of all things, how attention and language matters, and how natural gas and tar sands exploitation is costing Albertans their souls.
The Collapsing Empire is John Scalzi’s most recent space opera. It takes the tropes of far flung planets and space ships travelling between them and puts some interesting characters doing clever things in those ships and places of power and knowledge. Yup. Good stuff.
The collapsing part of the empire (called the Interdependency because they rely on trade between stars to survive) is that the bits of nonspace that connect these farflung worlds without having to travel actually faster than light (though the effect is pretty much the same in a Traveller-esque fashion) are shifting, and that’s shifting how power will play out on the grand scale. It’s a good ecological metaphor and I enjoyed how humanity has had to build habitats wherever they could connect to each other, rather than on planets that would be suitable for bearing human life.
I’m a bit interested in what will happen when the shifting status quo meets up with either Earth or a generationship kind of thing that didn’t use the networks that are shifting. It’s a series though, so that doesn’t happen in this book. It was a fine light read; a good popcorn book. As far as space opera I’ve read recently I like it better than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but not as much as Leviathan Wakes or The Stars Are Legion.
I enjoyed Tetris: The Games People Play even though it was essentially a business story. Box Brown is good at making characters out of real people, and the very analog style of art worked really well in contrast to the pixels of the game under discussion for most of the book. It laid everything out clearly with the convoluted selling of rights that some people didn’t have, and in the end it all works out for the Russian who invented the game (though his friend and sidekick through most of the story ends up um.. badly in a way that surprised me and could have been a frame for a very different style of book).
In the beginning of the book there was a bit about the importance of games and the cultural significance of them, which gets wrapped around back to by the end. I think that’s the best part, and what I’ll probably return to. It felt a little like reading Scott McCloud in its clarity and use of the comic format.
I’ve become less of a devotee of the power of games in the last year or two, mostly because I’m seeing more ways that adding game layers to things enhances certain political projects. Which is conflicting, because while I love games and I wish I could play them more, but I prefer it when games are kept in the realm of recreation and art, not business or the betterment/anaesthetizing of society or the efficiency of an organization.
So yes, the book about Tetris made me feel bad about the world. But it’s good.