book review: authority and acceptance

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is about a weird area on the forgotten coast in a future with nameless bureaucracies instead of specific governments. With all the namelessness what is named is important. In the first book, Annihilation the names were given to the specifics of the environment the biologist was witnessing. In Authority we go with the replacement director into the bureaucracy that sent the expeditions in the first book. By the third book, Acceptance, we’re discovering the depths of what came before and putting names to the weirdnesses.

While each book has delved into the mystery of Area X, the characters are the reason to keep reading. I found that Acceptance, because it had worked up to four viewpoint characters in three timelines, was a bit less drag-me-along I need to finish this last night than the first two. They were all really good, but if you want to stop after the first I think that’d be okay too.

I wasn’t sure what my reading life would be like after my kid was born (a little less than 4 weeks ago now). So far, I’ve been getting through things all right, though the dead time when your job is simply holding a screaming grub trying to let it be quiet again isn’t as conducive to in-depth concentration as I’d prefer. If I could listen to audiobooks I’m sure that’d work a bit better, but someone would always be distracting me. In any case, huzzah for ebooks that let me turn bages by tapping something that’s always lying flat where I put it.

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book review: the laundry files (complete series)

I have been a fan of Charles Stross’ work for many years. I remember reading Accelerando and liking it once I got my head around it, and enjoying the near-future police procedural books like Halting State but it was Glasshouse and Neptune’s Brood that turned me into an “I will read whatever this gentleman puts out” kind of reader. So it’s a little weird I haven’t read his Laundry Files series.

On the surface this seems made for me. I love the confluence of lovecraftian mythos and modern technology stories. I enjoy tales of rebellious smartasses in confining structures they were not made for but have to deal with. But for whatever reason I never got into Stross’ version of that. Much like my filling the Dark Tower gap last year, I decided to go for it in 2017. I read the entire series in order (mostly) from February to April and put my thoughts in this review as I went. There are a couple of later additions to reviews, mostly to change speculations about my opinions to solidify them a bit. At the end of the review I do suggest my top three stories to read if you don’t want to commit to a seven novel + assorted short works series.

Short orientation: The Laundry is a British governmental department dealing with “things humans were not meant to know.” It turns out the multiverse is leaky and math that looks like magic (and that’s much easier to do with late 20th-early 21st century computing power) can summon tentacly beasts and other malign entities from nearby or far realities. The Laundry tries to clean up those messes.

the atrocity archives

Bob Howard works a desk job for the Laundry fixing their IT systems. He asks to get assigned to active duty and gets to help extract Mo from the United States when her brain’s contents have been tagged as an interesting asset by the Americans. Things happen and Bob saves the universe from a Nazi-summoned energy-sucking entity.

One of the things I liked most about this book is how Bob’s physical solving of problems amounts to figuring out a clever way to call for help and get it there quickly. I wasn’t a big fan of the way Bob’s female superiors were portrayed as harpies worrying about the stupid inconsequential shit while the boys bluffly went off to save Mo and the world.

concrete jungle

In this short story Bob investigates the intersection of a Gorgon effect with the UK’s rampant surveillance camera culture in the middle of a bureaucratic power-play back at the Laundry’s office. Bob’s female supervisors (who were written as loathsome characters) get removed for their crimes and I hope the gendering of nags getting in the way of the serious work done by fun bros will ease up as the series progresses.

the jennifer morgue

The Jennifer Morgue takes Bob Howard and puts him into a Bond movie, but one where the agent we spend the most time with has to deal with an underpowered smartcar and the ignominy of wearing a suit while thwarting a possessed billionaire trying to summon something from the briny depths (in violation of many secret treaties).

I never like plot devices where a character is forcibly attached to another character against their wills so the way that happened in this book gave me a bit of the squicks, but otherwise I appreciated this one. Falling into Bond tropes (despite how unrealistic they are for secret agents) is the driver of the plot but the fact they are Bond clichés is part of the villain’s master plan.

This one also did veer away from the women in power as naggy evil bitches trope, which let me breathe a sigh of relief (I was pretty sure it’d happen since I knew Stross’ more mature work, but am glad I didn’t have any more books of it to sit through).

down on the farm

This short story has Bob investigating the asylum where Laundry field agents are sent when their brains break from their mathematical sorcery. There’s a clever enough “so that’s what’s going on!” reveal but because the story was so short there wasn’t enough build-up or room to complicate it.

equoid

“Equoid” is a short novella about unicorns. But Lovecraftian unicorns part of the larger Shub-Niggurath meme. Bob heads out into the country to check up on a thing and ends up in a tentacly horrific mess. My favourite aspects of this story included the twists to what could have been a very predictable plot, and the specific in-continuity addressing of the role Lovecraft plays in the Laundry Files universe. It’s my favourite of the short Laundry works, and I’d argue the best entry point to the series.

“Equoid” was originally published free online at Tor.com, but I had to go into the Wayback Machine to find the copy linked to above.

the fuller memorandum

In The Fuller Memorandum Bob Howard and his wife Mo O’Brien are dealing with cults. Doomsday cults. Bob’s dangerous boss goes missing and he’s making mistakes so his nice boss is sending him home for stress leave but there are Russians in London and the timeline for the end of the world has been pushed up.

This book got way more violent and darker than the previous ones felt (though I’d say “Equoid” is the most viscerally unsettling of all the stories). Daycares are terrorist targets and there’s a lot of death magic going on. It was fine, but less jokey and fun as Bob is maturing his way up the hierarchy of the Laundry. I appreciate that the evil management of bureaucracy shtick wasn’t focused on a harpy in this book.

overtime

“Overtime” is a short Xmas story about forecasting Ops and the imminent onset of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. The belief in Santa as the walls between realities get weaker is causing a tentacly monster to come down the Laundry’s chimney and Bob, who’s working the holiday night shift, has to deal with it. It is an okay story but nothing special.

the apocalypse codex

The Apocalypse Codex is about infiltrating an American megachurch that has some heretical beliefs (involving waking sleeping gods and putting mind-control bugs in people who don’t buy into the theology willingly). This is also the first of the novels that has Bob in a management role. I appreciated the “learning how to let your team to the job” aspects, though Bob does get to do some stuff himself too.

My biggest problem with the book is the scale of the aftermath. Big things happen to thousands of people in Colorado in this story and I would think dealing with that would be difficult at the least, so I hope it’s not swept under the rug. Stross usually is pretty good about following up on aftermath so I’m not too worried.

The other problem with this book was that there wasn’t enough Mo, and there was a Mo substitute. I understand why the story needed someone other than Mo in the badass superspy role, but that Persephone Hazard was so undifferentiated from Mo made it fall a little flat. The characters in general felt more plot-expedient than actual people, but maybe that’s just familiarity wearing through.

the rhesus chart

I think The Rhesus Chart is my favourite book in this series. Though there wasn’t as much aftermath from The Apocalypse Codex as I expected there is mention of some of those meetings. The great part of this book is that it’s a vampire story. But of course vampires don’t exist. Mo lays out all the ways that vampires as portrayed in fiction wouldn’t work, from caloric intake needs to turning the entire global population into vampires and all of that. But then some high-flying quants in an investment bank become vampires and the story unfolds.

I liked it because the story brought us out of some of the “terrible world shaking doom” rut the main novels could have been settling into; this is actually a pretty personal small-stakes story. I always like “real science” vampire explanations and the “magic is computation” conceit of the Laundry Files led into some interesting work with that. I also loved the banker/vampire-talk. They were using Scrum management techniques and all the buzzwords, because they were just a startup entering an industry where the dominant players were very old and entrenched.

The weakest part of the book in my opinion was the vampire-hunter, though I’m glad she was introduced into the story quite late so we didn’t have to spend much time with her.

the annihilation score

The Annihilation Score is a Laundry Files book about superheroes and policing, but more importantly it’s a Mo O’Brien centred story. After the vampire threat lay waste to the Laundry (and Bob and Mo’s marriage) in The Rhesus Chart, Mo is put in charge of dealing with the outbreak of super-abilities among people who aren’t sorcerors.

It’s about PR and what a superhero uniform looks like, and explaining actions to very powerful government people, especially when there’s a racist super tossing trucks at counter-demonstrators vs the much more powerful djinn summoner hiding in a friendly neighbourhood mosque. Politics yo.

It was good. I found the marriage-breaking-up stuff good and humanizing along with the demon violin infiltrating Mo’s head, but needing it to do her job. Again, this one made management seem like a not-so-terrible thing if done properly, which makes me wonder what I’m becoming.

the nightmare stacks

The Nightmare Stacks is a Laundry Files novel about an alien invasion, but by faerie. This one doesn’t have Mo or Bob in it, and uses one of the vampires from The Rhesus Chart, Alex, as the main protagonist. The Laundry is moving to Leeds and there are prognostications that things are going to go badly.

The faerie are gracile hominids whose world has been destroyed by tentacly beasts and magic (the sort of thing the Laundry is trying to avoid on Earth), who use magical geas as their will to power instead of language. They’re brutal and inhuman and one of their spies with a bit more empathy than her species would prefer gets involved with the invasion (and – spoiler alert – turning it around).

It was fine, but I felt like I’d read this plot before in Stross’ Merchant Princes series. Again, we’ve got knockoffs of the original Laundry characters playing roles that aren’t very dissimilar from what the originals used to be, which makes the originals feel retrospectively thinner and more puppety. I liked how it ended, but the situations weren’t enough to make up for the characters.

series thoughts

And here we are, all caught up as of April 2017. (There’ll be another Laundry Files novel coming out this summer.) I’m not sure it was to the series’ benefit to read them all in two months like this. You can see a bit more of the formula to the series, the strings holding up the puppets, and the repeated explanations of how things work that you remember from the book you read last week.

In general though, I like the books. If I’m recommending the highlights for someone who doesn’t want to plow through the whole array in order, I’d suggest “Equoid,” The Fuller Memorandum and The Rhesus Chart as the three to start with, and then fill in bits afterwards if you like those.

book review: zone one

I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.

First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.

Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).

Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.

Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.

Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.

In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.

book review: kafka’s hat

Kafka’s Hat is Patrice Martin’s story of a man who embarks on a quest to pick up the hat that once belonged to a famous writer for his boss. It’s much lighter than anything actually by Kafka, and also owes a great deal to Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster. In the end it becomes a story about all those writers, but with a very light touch. It feels less substantial than those great writers’ works but a good complement.

I have a couple of quibbles with the characterization of P. one of the main characters. I don’t know if, even in the post-hoc rationalizing way that makes sense when you’re writing Kafka pastiche, a couple of the decisions P. made were actually earned by the character. At several moments P. felt less like a person caught in greater machinations than a playing piece being pushed by a writer. This is, obviously, a fairly fine distinction, as all characters are caught in the machinations of their writers, but I feel like if you’re drawing Kafka comparisons you’d better bring your A game.

But the problems I had were minor quibbles. The book is slight, yet solid. I would argue with the promotional copy about it being “delightfully absurd” (Jasper Fforde’s work seems more dlightful than this) but I definitely enjoyed my time reading it.

book review: zeitoun

Zeitoun is a Dave Eggers book about a Syrian-born house painter and his family and their experience with Hurricane Katrina. It’s a nonfiction book, told as a story. There are flashbacks to how Abdulrahman and his wife Kathy met, and stories of his older brother who was a long-distance swimmer, but most of the story is about how Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans and took his canoe around helping people and was thrown into Camp Greyhound and then prison for his trouble.

I haven’t immersed myself in a lot of the post-Katrina story of New Orleans, so while I knew that there was a lot of terrible stuff that happened, I didn’t know about the Guantanamo-esque prison camp that they built while people were trapped in houses and the water rose.

It’s not the kind of book that would make you feel much sympathy for anyone in charge of any kind of bureaucracy ever, but it seems to be a really good story about what being Muslim in 21st-century America is like.

I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t really like Eggers’ writing style. It seemed too basic and earnest. Which is fine, this isn’t a story you really want to be injecting a lot of ironic distance into, but I just didn’t like the writing very much.

book review: the left hand of darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those science fiction classics I hadn’t ever read. And it’s really good and I’m an idiot for not having read it until now, blah blah blah get all that stuff out of the way.

The protagonist of the book is not quite an ambassador from an interstellar consortium of humans. He is the only one on this planet called Winter. He’s there to ask the planet to join them. He’s not there with a fleet of ships, just by himself so that he can be a curiosity instead of a threat. That’s the idea at least.

The planet is interesting for its sexual dynamics. They’re human but strangely modified sometime deep in the past, so out of their 26 day months they are mostly androgynous. When they go into kemmer (which is sort of like estrous) their sexual characteristics come out, randomly male or female. This non-attachment to their gender is the fundamental strangeness of the people. Otherwise we see two nations: one is a monarchy led by an insane king. The other is a civilized Kafkan bureaucracy. Everywhere is cold. The last third of the book takes place on a thousand-mile hike across glaciers.

It was a beautifully sad book. It’s about friendship and gender and the complete blindness a person has when dealing with the foreign. The language is a bit interesting for a book dealing with gender so strongly. The masculine pronoun is used for all the androgynes because the neutral would have had too strange of connotations, says the narrator.

I believe it won a Hugo and that there are more books in the same universe, which I will now slowly read.

quashing participation

Information professionals should be using social media if they care about the rest of the world. I mean, I’m a fan of cataloguing in a cave, but engaging with your community is important. Even if you’re the most locally focused librarian ever in a community where none of your users give a shit about Twitter it’s important to be using it to pull in information and to show off the knowledge being created in your community.

One thing we learned in our Community-Led libraries course with Beth Davies and Annette de Faveri was the importance of not coming into a space with an agenda. Not showing up and saying “Here are some awesome things the library can do for you!” but hanging out and asking what is happening with them, letting the community lead the library. That takes a long time. I think participating online requires a bit more push than that, because if you’re just hanging out as a library, not talking on Twitter, you’re invisible (in a way you aren’t when you’re sitting in a halfway house with a box of donuts).

I also think the idea of a limit to our participation in social media is stupid. I mean, sure, posting pictures of patrons on Facebook without their permission is a bit sketchy. But stopping information professionals from being part of the world just because of who their employers are is bullshit.

A story from work: A library in Northern Australia was making use of some of Koha’s features to integrate a blog onto the front page of the OPAC. The library staff were creating this information to participate in the wider world and were really proud of it. And then their Communications Department found out and shut it down. Not because of something bad that happened but because of stupid bureaucratic power disputes that said librarians aren’t authorized to create publications. That story makes me incredibly angry. To have participation curtailed by the communications department who wanted more control over messaging is kind of terrible.

Part of my visceral reaction to that story has to do with my personal history working at a public library that had a regressive attitude towards people talking about things online. I was disciplined for blogging about work on my personal time. The disciplinary hearing involved the director of our library telling me I was not fit to be a librarian and shouldn’t go to library school because of my disrespectful attitude. This experience led to my disclaimer/explanation page you can see linked to on my library blog’s on Opinions page, and you can read some of my other ruminations about privacy and the like when that former library actually created a social media policy because of me. That link includes a response to a danah boyd article.