book review: walkaway

Walkaway is the latest novel by Cory Doctorow. It’s a utopian tale of people who, because of ubiquitous 3d printing technology (that can produce food, drugs, shelter, clothing and whatever else out of raw material feedstock) drop out of the default society that has no place for them apart from working terrible jobs to try and become one of the zotta-rich (since the 1% is now giga-beyond mega-rich).

The story follows a bunch of different walkaways, starting with three who make the decision after a communist party. One of those three is the daughter of a zotta, which fuels most of the plot. Otherwise it’s about how a post-scarcity society based on walking away from the ratrace could work. It’s hugely utopian and I really liked it, even when default society was sending the troops in to destroy these techno hippies.

I have always wanted to live in something like walkaway. Owning nothing I didn’t mind getting stolen and working on things to work on them, not because I need a paycheque to live.

The marketing material stressed how it’s his first Adult novel in years (after doing a run of YA work), but the main difference between this and something like Little Brother is that this has sex scenes. Which are fine, but whatever. It still felt like a YA book and a big part of that is that until the last quarter of the book everyone we see walking away are people’s kids or hipsters or disconnected from the world scientists. No one walks away from their kids, or brings them with them. It feels very adolescent not to deal with the responsibilities you’re walking away from. Or maybe that’s just something I notice more now that I’m more of a boring grownup. The book feels like it’s telling me if I wanted to walk away I should have done it before now. So that’s kind of depressing, to have a novel show you the society you want and say you’re too late for it. I guess that’s just what aging is for though.

book review: homeland

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.

book review: gun with occasional music

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

book review: steampunk! an anthology of fantastically rich and strange stories

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.

a reading recap for a month that kind of got away from 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.

Margo Lanagan’s Red Spikes and George Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation were two books of short stories I read. The George Saunders one is amazing.

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.

What else? Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends and Will Bingley’s Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson both made me want to be a writer.

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.

book review: the rapture of the nerds

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.

book review: ready player one

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.