book review: the great railway bazaar

I read The Great Railway Bazaar long after reading Paul Theroux’s book about revisiting his journey thirty years later. I liked the revisiting book better, possibly because the society Theroux was writing to in the 2000s is more like the society I think of myself a part of.

The parts I liked were the parts about the trains themselves. I too am a lover of trains and riding on them and could gladly let riding a train be the entirety of a vacation. I also appreciated the Vietnam chapters because this was written so close to the war and things felt weird and on edge there. But this book had more than just riding on trains. It had a lot of grand statements by a white guy about the cultures he was passing through. I can see a lot of similarity to myself there too, and, well, it was kind of ugly.

Theorux makes all these sweeping statements that seem to have no compassion for any of his subjects. I didn’t get that feeling from his book as an older man. Maybe I’ve just heard enough of what people who look like me have to say about travelling through Asia. And maybe that’s why I liked the Vietnam sections; his compassionless comments were directed at Americans and other foreigners instead of the people whose homes he was cruising through.

book review: the white tiger

When my mother recently went to India she asked what I wanted as a souvenir. I requested “books by South Indian writers” and if they were ones I’d have trouble finding in Canada all the better. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Booker in 2008, so it’s not like it’d be especially difficult for me to find here, but I hadn’t read it before this week. Well done, Mom.

The White Tiger is about a country boy named Balram from The Darkness, interior India’s villages. He’s pulled out of school as a child and eventually becomes the driver for a landlord’s son. That job takes him to Delhi where he formulates his ideas of servanthood and the terrible nature of it. Balram is telling this story in the form of reminiscent letters to Wen Jiabao (now former-) leader of China. Now that Balram is a successful entrepreneur he is teaching the communist leader how India really works.

There is a lot of cheating and other dishonesty throughout. It’s a very entertaining read and its struggle against the chicken coop of a democracy that lets votes be bought and sold is effective and maddening. There are two scenes that particularly stand out to me. In both of them Balram is a bystander as someone “goes mad” and tries to behave as if you could take what people say at face value. In one instance a man tries to enter a shopping mall. In another a man tries to vote on election day. Both are futile exercises for the poor man.

book review: cyberabad days

Cyberabad Days is a collection of short stories set in the world of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. That world is a 21st century where India has fragmented into mini-states banning or making huge amounts of money on aeais and genetic engineering and drought (and cricket).

The collection is good for getting into the details of how some of the weirder aspects of the world worked than you can really get into in the middle of a novel. Setting up other characters who are marrying aeais while the Water War happens is a great way to make the world feel deeper. The final story in the book is about one of the hugely-long-lived Brahmin gengineered children and it’s the only story that really moves the world past the big events that happen in the novel. I think it was my favourite story because of that, though “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” was te kind of complete little tale that I enjoy.

If you wanted to see if you’d like River of Gods (which is a pretty big fat book) you wouldn’t do too badly to read one or two of these stories, but don’t read “Vishnu and the Circus of Cats” because that will kind of mess up a lot of reveals from the novel. And for the record, my favourite Ian McDonald book is still Desolation Road.

book review: supergod

Supergod is the story a British scientist tells of how the world was destroyed by nations putting their trust in hugely powerful beings who can fly. It’s an interesting read for the ideas and the pictures of superbeings reshaping the world.

There aren’t really any characters to get attached to apart from the narrator, who basically takes the place of Uncle Warren telling creepy tales of mushroom sex and soviet robots. Also, because it’s a Warren Ellis comic, of course the British space program plays into the story.

It’s a different take on superhumans than something like Black Summer; a much bigger picture story, and one that highlights how badly people would really deal with that kind of thing.

book review: debt: the first 5000 years

I’ve been grabbing people by the arm and talking their ears off about David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a couple of weeks now. Putting together a few thoughts about it here has been a little daunting though. Partially because I liked it so much, but partially because it seems to be about so much.

The idea is to look at human history and how the idea of debt has been constructed. Graeber talks about societies where money is used only for the important things in life and the idea of being in debt for something like food makes little sense. He goes into the myth of barter ever existing the way Adam Smith and so many subsequent economists talked about it. He goes into a history of merchants through the world (not limiting himself to Christendom, which means his conception of the Middle Ages start off in China and India) and how religions incorporate their society’s struggle with the idea of all-purpose money. There’s stuff about the ages when Christ and Gautama and Mohammed were changing the world and how separating economics from religion is crazy.

It was an amazing book. I have my buddy who knows about economics reading it now so I can get a bit more informed opinion about it, but for now, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed/had their thoughts provoked by Guns Germs and Steel.

book review: the years of rice and salt

I have had Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt on my “To Read” list for ages. Now it isn’t there anymore, having moved to the “I must bore everyone I know talking about this because I love it” list.

The book tells the story of a number of souls. Well, they’re more Buddhist than that, like assemblages of characteristics. They encounter each other and try to make the world better. They’re Persian or Chinese or Japanese or other subjects of the great empires of the world since the 14th century. There’s one who is a dreamer and one who desires justice and one who is happy. They find themselves on opposite sides of ideologies from their previous lives and in bodies of different genders and cultures and occupations. Sometimes we see them after they have died and they’re getting their souls redistributed in the bardo where they can have a bit more meta- attitude about the point of their lives and going back again and again and how they should do better the next time.

Each section takes place at a different critical point in history when these souls (whose human names begin with the same letter every life as a mnemonic) try to live and improve the world. It’s so good, and makes me so sad that all my conversations with friends are about what kind of jobs we’ll be able to find. The scale of the story is so big, so pan-human that anything else feels so petty.

The other thing about this book is that it is an alternate history. In the 13th century plague wiped out most everyone in Europe, so all the history is different from that point on. The ancient Greeks and Romans are known, but Christians have been lost to history (much like we’d think of druids today). The whole colonization of the New World is a competition between China and the Muslim world coming at it from opposite oceans. Things are different but similar all throughout the book. The indigenous people of North America resisted colonization in different ways because being exposed to smallpox in smaller batches meant there was less genocide by germs. And feminist Islam is different and the development of nuclear power is there but different.

I’m sure that if you wanted to examine the choices Robinson made in creating this alternate history critically you could see it as its own exoticizing racist colonialist terrible thing. I read it more as a book about possibilities and loved it. The language wasn’t systematic in what it made unrecognizable but it was enough to remind you that things are different in this world even as the beings living through it feel like nothing is changing. It’s exactly what I want fiction to do so I loved this book.

book review: for the win

Cory Doctorow’s For The Win is about goldfarmers and unions and economics. It’s a good primer on all these issues, but as per usual, I feel like the novel was more of an excuse for Doctorow to write in-character mini-essays. Not to say they weren’t good essays, but yeah. The man definitely has opinions.

The idea is this: in-game economies are huge and underground and are worth more than a lot of countries. These economies are based on rare in-game items (magic gatling-swords) that you can only get by playing a long long time. When people have more money than time they can pay someone else for those benefits. This gives rise to ‘gold-farming’ which is where people play the game, grinding out tasks to collect items that can then be sold for real money. This is illegal but prevalent in game worlds. The Guardian recently did a story on how Chinese labour camps are making their prisoners gold-farm.

For The Win looks at this issue as a workers’ rights issue. These gold-farmers work for bosses, playing the games and generating revenue. The big question of the book is, since these economies are so huge what happens if the workers organize? Don’t the workers have power? There’s interaction between the organizing gamers and the “real-life” unions who don’t understand how that transnational kind of organization would work, and people dismissing it all as just a game anyway. There are a lot of cool ideas in the book.

The characters are a multinational bunch and generally likable. Doctorow’s good at giving you the “villain’s” perspective as well as your heroes’. There’s a lot in there that seems like it’s in there for no reason (WeiDong going to China in a customized shipping container thing is the main thing that bugged me in that regard). The explanations of interesting social experiments to do with money and economies and envy are interesting, but I feel like I’d like them to be integrated better into the story or separated out a bit (I think Neal Stephenson and Peter Watts both do a similar sorts of thing better, often by putting the essays into endnotes or appendices).

The other completely annoying thing was the advertisements for Cory’s favourite bookstores that ended every scene for the first half to two-thirds of the book. I don’t know if those are in the paper version or just the free-to-download .epub version I got from his website, but man oh man did I hate those interruptions. That’s something that would have been fine as footnotes, but bang right in the middle of the text, just angered me.

But yeah, it’s an interesting book for the economics of it all. If you’re an economist it might frustrate you with its explanations being too simplified or something but it was pretty good for interested layperson.

Charles Stross writes similar stuff about game economies and online crime with his books Halting State and its sequel which is out now (or very soon) Rule 34.