book review: the bone clocks

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s new novel about a woman named Holly Sykes and the strange life she gets caught up in living. It does the excellent David Mitchelly thing of having multiple sections which are their own stories in their own specific times (though this one, unlike Cloud Atlas, does keep marching into the future).

I liked the story as it built from a literary-feeling mundane story into a pretty gonzo sci-fi spectacle. Holly Sykes is in every part and she’s great, but she’s not the narrator or even a main character in many of the sections, which is kind of what I really liked about the novel. It bounces around with a bunch of different perspectives (which are not as extremely different as the different styles in number9dream) that to me make it feel like it’s trying to capture the multiplicity of life. The book’s always about Holly even if we’re in the heads of her less than immaculate friends and lovers.

There are a couple of things that I wasn’t a huge fan of, but they were more on the loose ends side of things. The final section was longer than it probably needed to be but it was also the most affecting part of the whole experience. That might be because it was the furthest into the future and the most sfnal. I can see how you could call it preachy, but I think that fits the narrator at that point.

So yes, I liked it. It’s a bit weirder than The Thousand Autumns of Jacon de Zoet, but Mitchell knows how to write characters you’ll really care for (in the midst of weird scifiishness).

book review: saint germaine – shadows fall

I was primed by my love of Greg Stolze and John Tynes’ RPG Unknown Armies to really like Gary Reed’s Saint Germaine comic. I mean a story about the great immortal wandering the earth, dying a thousand deaths, but always returning to witness more of humanity is bound to be kind of awesome. Well, no.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a story here. A writer is summoned to the immortal’s home to write his tale. He’s attacked by shadows of Lilith, the immortal’s companion. There are scenes from the Spanish Inquisition and Moscow, pre-Napoleon. The writer is consumed by shadows and used as a weapon against Lilith. That’s what I’ve got.

Maybe it would reward a more careful reading, but nothing about the art or the writing really drew me in to say, here’s something great. And with my preconceptions about the First and Last Man (and let me say again that Unknown Armies does really cool stuff with this bit of myth), this book needed to be great instead of meh.

book review: green mars

Green Mars is the sequel to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. They’re books about Mars! Green Mars was good in its discussion of how a new world trying to become free might act. The politics between the various factions in play on the planet feel much more realistic than something in which people rise up in a monolithic block. So for its depictions of politics, I like the book.

What I don’t like is how distant I felt from everything. Part of that comes from the varying POV characters, but a huge part of it is the timescale the book covers. See, in the first book they also invented a life-extension treatment for humans that basically means they won’t die from natural causes. It means that the characters in this book are mostly members of the first 100 on Mars and by the end they’re well into their second centuries of life. Even the kids we meet at the beginning of this book are 70 by the end. I found connecting with these characters hard when we’d gloss over so much of their lives with “and then she spent a decade working on aquifers.”

I get that terraforming is a long process and as a writer you want to keep your characters in the mix, but I’m more interested in what someone who only had twenty years might have to contribute. The longevity thing is the disruptive technology in this book much more than the terraforming is. It makes it more alien and science fictional which is good, but I think I’d settle for a smaller scale story that made more of a connection with the characters.

Desolation Road remains my gold standard for Mars novels even though it has a bit more “indistinguishable from magic” style technology.

book review: permutation city

Permutation City is a Greg Egan book about people creating copies of themselves to run in virtual worlds. The in real life part of it is partially set in Sydney right near where I live, which is kind of neat. Because it’s a Greg Egan book, there’s lot’s of talking about ideas of how we are what we think we are. This one’s got a little less oomph to it, but I expect that’s just because it’s from 1994.

One of the ideas he explores is about being able to edit your own personality completely as a digital entity. One of the (digital) characters has it set up so he pours himself drinks to change his mood. A whole liquor cabinet full of Optimism, Calm Acceptance, Driven to Succeed, which felt more natural to him than sitting at a mixing board style console to tweak his personality.

I love thinking about that whole digital consciousness stuff. Even if it’s infeasible in real life. In this book he talks about the different paths taken in virtual biology. Some people generate a bunch of ad-hoc processes to make you feel like you’re there, but another character is working in a virtual world with completely different laws of physics. She’s got a project trying to prove whether or not natural selection is possible in that universe with much less complex rules.

There’s lots of neat stuff here. Not my favourite Greg Egan, but still, damned good book.

book review: in the garden of iden

I feel like I should read something non-science fiction soon because it seems I’ve been on a bit of a tear here. Too bad though, because In the Garden of Iden is a Kage Baker book about immortality, time travel and the idiot romanticism of being young.

So the protagonist of the story is Mendoza, a young girl who’s rescued from the hands of the Inquisition back in the 16th century and is turned into an immortal genius botanist working for an ominous megacorporation from the 24th century called Doctor Zeus (which I alternated between pronouncing like Seuss and Zaius; I don’t know which is correct) to preserve things that history records as having gone extinct but will be found in weird isolated niches all over the planet. That’s the setup.

Mendoza’s in 16th century England posing as the 19 year old daughter of a Spanish doctor (which is convenient because she is 19 – the workers for the company don’t travel through time any differently than the rest of us, at least not in this book), trying to preserve these extinct plants with awesome medicinal properties no one’s noticed yet and she falls in love and there are complications.

There’s a lot of neat tech and anachronism in the book but my favourite part is how appropriate the ending is.

So yes, very cool book. Timetravel, immortality, romance and religion. What more do you need?

when you dine with the cannibals

In the last couple of days at the library we had an older guy creepily readjusting his underwear while asking staff at our desk to “take a little walk” with him in the video section, a security guy catching one of our visually impaired patrons using the special computer terminal for the visually impaired to look at porn, and another patron seeking KISS’ manager’s contact information so he could invite Gene Simmons out for kosher food when the band is in town. I had to go through the entire freaking KISS tour schedule for that guy to spot the gaps where they might be able to fit an extra show in if he asked very nicely.

Last night Beard Lady was in a really great mood, trying to find out which came first, Pyramids or Ziggurats. Then while we were researching she was giddily laughing about the hair on the Sphinx and I said “It’s not hair; it’s stone!”

“No no no,” she replied, “You can’t fool me. That’s hair and I know it. And the people who built it we don’t know what they ate. They were all cannibals.”

“Actually part of the reason they could build the Pyramids was because of the surplus food storage made possible by the annual Nile flooding and…”

“Cannibals.”

“Maybe the odd time-travelling serial killer,” I said, “but…”

“In all your 20 thousand videos here,” she jumped tracks, “it’s amazing that not one talks about immortality except the Highlander.”

“That’s not true. What about The Fountain?”

“What?”

“It’s all about immortality. Here, wait a second.” I found it on the shelf and gave it to her. “It doesn’t have any nudity.”

“No kissing?”

I thought. “The explorer might kiss the Queen of Spain on the hand.”

“Oh that’s good. I don’t like pornography.”

“I know.”

She’s looking at the back of the case. “But he’s so dirty.”

“Yes, he’s a Spanish explorer, trying o find…”

“And these pictures are in circles. That means they aren’t educated. When you graduate you wear a square hat and that means you are educated. The tiles in my bathroom are all square so that symbolizes education and knowledge. And circle means female. In the dictionary under Symbolism. Circle means female. Square means educated.”

“But the circles are like portholes on a ship. Letting you see out and through what you’re passing by. Maybe your floor should get some circular tiles because right now it’s educated but blind.” May I add that I love getting into these discussions with Beard Lady? I just wish she’d actually listen.

“No no no. Circle is female and he’s too dirty. Like a caveman. That’s not immortality.” And then she laughed and laughed as she headed down the stairs.

book review: jitterbug perfume

It had been a while since my last Tom Robbins book and Jitterbug Perfume is the one I broke my inadvertent fast with. I can’t remember ever not liking one of his books. They’re always funny and philosophical. This one talks about scent, Pan, immortality and individuality. It’s now my favourite of his.

There’s a whole treatise near the end about evolution bringing consciousness from the reptilian brain to the mammalian brain and soon we will need to transition to the floral brain. That section might not be worth the price of admission alone, but mostly because you need the rest of the book to put it in context. I also love Robbins’ use of puns and other tricks of language as he moves through vaguely serious issues in a vaguely serious but completely irreverent way. There’s something about the scholarly tone he uses mixed up with clever metaphor that I wish I could do myself.