book review: up up and away

I grew up a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was the perfect age to see them win back-to-back World Series in 92 and 93 and though I had my bleh years when I paid them less attention, I’ve been back in my childhood fandom for at least a decade. Since getting more into baseball I added the San Francisco Giants as my west coast team since it’s good to have a team to root for that’s in the same timezone as you. I chose the Giants because of Tim Lincecum and the Barry Zito fiasco and having missed all the Barry Bonds amazingness of the early 2000s (I did briefly flirt with Dodgers fandom, but I figured it made more sense to support a team because of onfield actions and players rather than primarily for their amazing play-by-play guy; I could still appreciate Vin Scully calling a game even if I wasn’t rooting for the Dodgers). More importantly, I needed a National League team to follow, and there wasn’t another that was an immediate obvious choice.

All of that is to say I regret not having paid more attention to the Montréal Expos when they existed. Jonah Keri did pay attention and wrote a book called Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montréal Expos. It’s a good summary of some of the team’s history and the stories around the teams that were good and the ownership troubles and the Big Owe and all of that. I quite enjoyed it.

I didn’t realize that the Blue Jays and their assertion of all of southern Ontario as their TV market was so detrimental to the Expos’ finances. Growing up I assumed there was a Québec law that said Expos games had to be in French and that was why we so rarely saw them play on TV. I remember the strike season and how even without watching the games we knew they were great and that it was a crime to not have a World Series. But I didn’t know the background fire-sale that decimated the team for the next season. And I totally didn’t know about the late ’70s early ’80s coke-fuelled party teams.

It’s a good book, written journalistically, with maybe a few too many personal stories of Keri’s games he was a spectator at, but whatevs. I have a better idea of the history of the Canadian MLB team I never knew I’d enjoy rooting for.

book review: supergods

I want to recommend Grant Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human as if it was just a straight up recounting of superhero comics and how they developed. It’s a prose book, not comics itself. Very readable history. Yep. That’s it. Go read it.

Okay, I can’t do it. Even though I want to completely obscure the idiosyncratic bizarre excellence that the book contains, I won’t paper over the fact that an unsuspecting reader of comic-book history blithely following along with the tales of Bob Kane and Stan Lee and Kirby and Miller could be blindsided by this turn into Grant Morrison’s time in Kathmandhu when he met higher dimensional beings who explained to him how the universe works and how that affected his superhero comics (like the amazing All-Star Superman).

It’s a crazy great book about one writer’s relationship with superheroes and because he’s a bit of a mad egotist (in a very charming way) it feels like it’s more than just a story about a drug trip, at least more than one man’s psychedelic voyage but about a chunk of society’s weird shamanic voyaging.

If that sounds like a totally wankery waste of time to you, I won’t feel bad if you skip this one. I loved it though.

book review: the lathe of heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is an awesome bit of science fiction. There’s a man named Orr who sometimes changes reality in his dreams. No one else knows that anything has happened, but the guilt over the responsibility of shifting reality is too much for him, so he does too many drugs to stop sleeping, is caught and put into therapy. This is in the first few chapters. Then it gets interesting.

His therapist has a machine that makes Orr’s dreaming more regularized and controllable and then starts using him to radically reshape the world to better fit his idea of what would be better.

It’s an amazing Dickian conceit but less madly written. I don’t know how I’ve missed reading this for so long. I found a trove of Le Guin paperbacks at a recent used book sale so I’m hoping to find a few more such gems in the heap (and am not reading anything about any of them ahead of time).

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

tv review: star trek deep space 9 (season 4)

The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is the one I remember being my favourite. The characters had settled into their interesting roles. They had their ship. Sisko was captain. Worf joined the crew. Nog goes to Starfleet Academy. The communicators changed shape. After this (in my memory) we start getting bogged down in endless war. While as a teenager I hated the first couple of seasons for being too political and boring, I disliked the latter seasons for being too much about military/mystical battles. Season 4 is the one at the tipping point of awesomeness.

The season’s highlight comes early with The Visitor. The Visitor is my favourite episode of any Star Trek ever, though most of it could be a Twilight Zone episode. Captain Sisko and his son Jake are in the Defiant’s engine room for a freak accident which kills the captain. The story is about how Jake deals with the loss, told from Jake’s perspective as an old man decades later. The key is that Jake’s father isn’t actually dead – he’s trapped in mumbojumboland where time doesn’t pass, and he keeps on reappearing inexplicably for Jake to feel the pain of the loss all over again.

The Star Trekkiness of this episode is basically pure technobabble. There’s an accident that does this weird thing. Jake spends a lifetime trying to figure out how to rescue his father and in the end he does, at the cost of his own life. There are Klingons and Bajorans and starships but the only reason we really need all of those is because they’re the accoutrements of Jake and Ben Sisko’s relationship. We’ve watched three seasons of them being father and son so we know what kind of relationship they have. In the episode itself, Jake says he and his father were close and it doesn’t have to spend scenes depicting that closeness outside the realm of this specific story.

And goddamnit it does a number on the writery part of me. Jake abandons his art and his life to save his father, when the Captain just wanted to see him grow up. It’s sad and hopeful and uses its Star Trekness in exactly the right way.

So yes, The Visitor was great. But this season also has Dax abandoned by another lover she would throw away her traditional life and career for. Worf is on trial for killing a shipload of civilians. Bashir gets to try solving impossible medical puzzles (in both breaking the Jem’Hadar addiction to ketracel white, and saving the people of a planet from a bioweapon plague). That Bashir fails in both of these (though he does get a vaccine up and going for the next generation) shows how the writers are taking things a bit more seriously. Not everything can be wrapped up in a nice little bow in one weekly episode.

But there are the light episodes too. The Ferengi going to Roswell in Little Green Men is fun. The holodeck adventure with Bashir as a Bondian spy is fun (though the reason for it working is ludicrous). Rom forming a union, and Quark standing up to the Ferengi Commerce Association and having everything he owns reposessed are also good episodes.

But the shadows of war episodes are the ones (after The Visitor) I remember most. Homefront and Paradise Lost take us back to Earth and we see the wrongness of security theatre (five years before the TSA turned airports into Orwellian zones). This is the season where Eddington defects to the Maquis and it hurts more than the second season episode where Sisko’s friend defects, because we’d had time to get to know Eddington. Oh, and Dukat becomes a pirate with a Klingon bird of prey. I love that episode.

Watching it all again, I remain convinced that DS9 got better and better to this point. Now we’ll see if my memories of a decline are also accurate.

books review: the hidden family, the clan corporate, the merchants’ war

It seems fitting to review the second third and fourth books in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series together because the flaws they have as stand-alone books make sense if you look at them as chapters in a longer story.

At the end of book 1 in the series we were up to date with Miriam Beckstein, tech journalist who is also a countess in an alternate universe where the geography is shared with Earth but technology and society has spun off on a very different track. Miriam and her clan are people who can hop between that world and our own (it’s set in the early 00’s U.S. homeland security paranoia).

In The Hidden Family Miriam has learned about a third world which is where there are more world walkers who are trying to destabilize the Clan’s power base in the medieval world. This third world is kind of steampunkish and hugely politically repressive. Miriam is trying to create a new economic base for her extended family in that new world.

In The Clan Corporate basically nothing happens. It’s an intensely frustrating book, to Miriam as well, because she’s basically just locked up while her family figures out how to sell her to the royal family to squirt out worldwalking babies. We also meet a DEA agent who’s dealing with the aftermath of one of the medieval spies turning on the Clan’s drug smuggling operation.

By The Merchants’ War the Clan is plunged into civil war and Miriam is on the run in the steampunky world and we’re learning just how genre distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy are kind of dumb.

I really like the story this series is telling. People are clever and behave like real clever people might. I just hate how it’s broken down into these separate volumes so you need to have recap time and setup time before the grand climax of the book, which in books 3 and 4 don’t even really happen. It’s the kind of series that’s crying out for a one-volume edition with some of the redundant bits edited out, since nothing is standing at all on its own. (You may remember that I had the same issue with Dance With Dragons. Too much like catching up with the characters and not enough story-structure for my taste.) But I’m looking forward to finishing the series because Stross writes great, thought-provoking stuff and the fact that it’s getting less and less like Zelazny and more like, well, Stross makes me very happy.

book review: the family trade

The Family Trade is the first book in The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. It’s the story of Miriam Beckstein who’s a just-fired tech journalist. In the aftermath of the story that was too big to let her keep her job she discovers she’s a countess as part of a feudal clan in an alternate Earth that she has the rare ability to travel back and forth between.

While that sounds like it could be the basis of a pretty simple fish-out-of-water tale, this is Charlie Stross, so of course Miriam sets out to deal with the world, and change it. The riches of her clan on the other side are based on basically being drug mules on our side. While this is lucrative it’s also vulnerable to market fluctuations (if the war on drugs in the US ended, there would go their wealth and power).

Stross writes characters that are competent and resilient and generally deal with things so you can get to the next idea. It keeps the plot moving when you don’t have to wait ages for a character to figure out some problem the reader saw the answer to as soon as it was proposed. The grander idea of “how will Miriam reshape her clan’s economy” is an idea you want to puzzle over, and the main reason I’m going to be resolutely avoiding spoilers from here on out. I’ve read the background on how this series got split into volumes kind of weirdly and yeah, it’s pretty noticeable, since this book ends kind of right in the middle of things happening.

Good light, fast-moving stuff. I’m looking forward to the next book.