book review: new moon

Ian McDonald’s Luna: New Moon has no lovestruck vampires. Instead, it’s the story of a dynastic Brazilian helium mining company/family on the moon, three generations into the colonization. I loved this book mostly because it doesn’t just deal with family power plays (the matriarch, the scheming brother, the loose cannon brother, the brilliant lawyer sister, the outcast, the fashionable next generation) but the economics of living in a harsh harsh world.

On the moon, there is no law, only contract. You pay for every bit of carbon you consume, every drop of water, your bandwidth, every breath you take. It’s AI-mediated anarchocapitalism with lawyers (and lawyer AIs) negotiating everything. Which sounds hellish to live in if you aren’t one of the people on top of the society. McDonald does a good job of if not romanticizing the economic concept, at least leavening it with some perspective of the working-class.

I couldn’t help but liken the resource-extraction hellpit that the moon is in this book (with nice bits for the rich) to Alberta. But the moon is socially libertarian as well. All sorts of sexual diversity is normal, the powerful aren’t all white people, there are ways to help one another. So while the plot was interesting enough, it was the bouncing around between ways of organizing people differently I really liked.

All in all, it’s a very good social science fiction book, and only wish it wasn’t the first in a series (I loved the ending and wish it actually was one).

book review: all the birds in the sky

Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky is great. The main characters start off as a couple of weird kids, one who talks to birds and another who builds a two-second time machine, and the story is about how they, well, interact is a clinical word, but it’s an appropriate one. Each of them embodies a different way of looking at the world off-kilterly, one through nature-magic and the other through mad-science.

It’s really good, but don’t expect it to feel realistic. For the first third of the book I was unsure why this wasn’t marketed as a more science-fictional Eleanor & Park. As kids there’s an assassin sent to deal with them but he’s not allowed to directly kill minors so he becomes their guidance counsellor and becomes really well-liked in that role. Then there’s a time jump to adulthood and the fate of the world starts to become an issue (and it loses some of that YA romance feeling). Later in the book it feels much more like The Magicians, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Makers or Seveneves.

One issue might be its optimism in the face of the end of the world, like there’s going to be an escape valve that we’ll actually all be okay. I think it walked the line well, but your mileage may vary.

book review: cyber-proletariat

If you are interested in how technology and capitalism and workers and consumption all interact, I’d suggest picking up Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. I got it as an interlibrary loan because of Sam Popowich talking about it on Twitter, and I found it insightful and not overly-academic. (Because I guess I don’t think of myself as a particularly rigorous thinker? I get a little intimidated talking about stuff like Marxism and critical theory around actual scholars.) Review-wise, I’d just suggest reading Sam’s text above.

I will be returning to the book because I am interested in how to apply the insights he displays in my work. A lot of what I do in my job is teach digital literacy, which practically amounts to helping people figure out how to navigate the settings app on their iPads or unfriend an annoying relative on Facebook. Helping people build up the skills to be able to do things the way digital capitalism expects them to. I often find myself teaching people how to think like the machine, and I get frustrated when they can’t or won’t.

But on reflection, and in reading something like Cyber-Proletariat, I get even more frustrated with myself that I’m not helping resist this stuff instead. Instead, I lament the state of the world and the insecurity of all things while chucking senior citizens into the volcano from my slightly more protected ad-blockery vantage point.

Enjoy Arby’s.

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book review: the triumph of human empire

I’m reading more nonfiction this year and stuff like The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams is why. I mean, this is a good justification for the trend unlike the dopey baseball book I also just read (but that gave me the difference between a 2-seam and a cut fastball in a way that feels like it’ll stick, so maybe I’m too harsh).

Williams compares the writing and other work by Jules Verne, William Morris and Robert Louis Stevenson with the frame of how the three felt about and responded to the massive shift in how the world worked at the end of the 19th century when Earth’s maps were getting filled in and human empire was everywhere. Williams argues that these writers were sensitive to the idea that the imperial west and its technology was now on its way to pushing up against each other more and more and relying on interconnections and brutality in dealing with those connections. Density was going to build and things were going to get much more complicated and these three wanted to resist the way things were going. Williams doesn’t make them unvarnished heroes or anything; they were still privileged white dudes and were racist and sexist and otherwise problematic in their own ways, especially in regards to colonialism.

The idea that we’re now in a similar kind of era, when we’re anxious about the end of the world through climate change and that it’s something we caused because we couldn’t stop digging coal out of the ground so we could cross huge distances easily, made the whole thing hang together really well. It’s clearly written and doesn’t plod. It’s also nice to have words for some of what I love about Verne and science fiction in general (the distancing mechanisms for the heroes in his geographic romances). I didn’t know as much about Morris or Stevenson, but I was glad to learn.

I had to get this as an interlibrary loan, because our public library doesn’t seem to grab random University of Chicago Press books, but hooray for the interconnected apocalypse we live in where it was possible to snag.

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book review: ultralight bike touring and bikepacking

My girlfriend and I are thinking about bike-touring more. Since we’re librarians that tends to mean research. One of the books that has thus found its way to our coffee table is Justin Lichter and Justin Kline’s guidebook Ultralight Bike Touring and Bikepacking.

The idea of going on a bike trip with pretty minimal stuff is very very appealing to me. I don’t like schlepping non-book stuff around and I like going places. So I’ve been reading a lot of blogposts about this kind of stuff, and not a lot was completely new. The bike models they talked about and the wheel-sizes and the companies making the bike equipment were all things I was familiar with. One of the people from Rivendell bikes was in here, which I appreciated since they make machines I dearly covet (my present to myself when I hit 40 will probably be a ridiculously pretty bike like a Hunqapillar).

One thing that made this book better than the blogposts was that it felt a little less manipulated for ad-dollar page-views. I mean, the writers talked about specific products probably about the same amount that a bike-blogger does but it feels different in pages somehow. And the fact that they have contributors talking about foraging for food on the side of your trail and taking less stuff makes me get my hackles up a bit less when they’re praising certain ultralight tarps (’cause tents are heavy luxuries).

There’s a lot in this book that could be ridiculous to follow along with too closely. It’d be easy to work too hard at being some sort of perfect ultralight gram-counter, and yeah it’s promoting a certain kind of consumerism that’s trying to be something more than it is. But in general, I liked this book, especially in the practical aspects of what to pack in your frame bag and what to sling behind your seat. And they say Tajikistan would be a good place to ride it.

book review: rocannon’s world

Rocannon’s World is another Ursula K Le Guin paperback (I told you I recently bought a trove of these things). This one is a science fiction story about Rocannon, a high tech surveyor of planets and cultures, who gets trapped on a primitive world when the high tech enemy destroys his ship and crew. He and some stalwart companions must voyage across half the planet to find the enemy’s faster than light radio to get a message out to his allies. So yeah, it sounds like a basic colonial quest narrative.

What I loved about it was the long prologue, which is about a princess from one of the poor scrabbling cultures who travels to the stars to reclaim a treasure the colonialists stole from her ancestors. When she returns with the jewel, the vagaries of lightspeed travel mean that it was all for nothing and everyone she loves is dead. I love this because it puts the reader first in the head of the people who live on this world, and what their concerns are, before moving to the great scientific hero who must lead the primitives to save them from themselves.

Also, the quest is much more of a fantasy story than a technological one. Rocannon has an impermeable suit of protection, but he carries no weapons. At one point he is burned at the stake for days because his captors don’t understand it and think him magical, but he wins that confrontation by standing without water for that time, which is killing him just as surely (though slower).

The climax is a little anticlimactic, but I liked the book as a whole.

storytime review: chu’s day, stop snoring bernard & mattoo let’s play

This week I hosted two preschool visits to the library on consecutive days. They were the same adults but different kids (mostly – a couple were there both days). I liked that arrangement because I got to directly fix things that went less well the first time through.

So here are the books I used. Neil Gaiman’s new picturebook Chu’s Day was our opener (after our welcome to storytime rhyme). It worked well with both groups, who really got into the “Ah ahhh ahhhh… No.” conceit. The only problem is that the “bad things that happen” probably require a bit closer examination to really admire the art. And the ending seems to leave kids wanting more.

I tried using Never Take A Shark to the Dentist the first time, because the cover was really attractive to the kids. The book ended up being a little high-concept for 3-4 year olds, but it was super easy to skip pages when that became apparent.

Stop Snoring Bernard worked really well in both groups. I got the kids to help with the snoring noises and in each group someone had one of those Cosby moments when they told everyone about one of their family members who snored. They also got to name some zoo animals, which helped keep everyone involved.

We did Shapes That Roll in the first session, but it was our last book and I think it would have played a bit better with more time to really get into all the shapes and explore them a bit. As it was we just kind of went with the rhyming.

In today’s session I replaced a couple of the less well-received books with a couple about trying very hard to be quiet. Mattoo, Let’s Play is about a loud little girl with a pet cat who forms a bond once she learns that some animals are best attracted by being quiet. We also did Read to Tiger which is about a tiger being very distracting when you’re trying to read. Everyone had fun making the loud distracting noises.

We did a dinosaur song both sessions it all worked out pretty well. Even the kid who was mad he wasn’t there to see a puppet show was unsullen at the end (that could have been because he was finally able to leave).

I’m going to try doing a few more of these types of storytime post-mortems because of something I took away from Miss Julie’s blog post where she mentioned:

In a profession that’s supposedly dominated by women, I find it sad that the librarians who get the most attention are mostly men (and, admittedly, some women), men who very rarely write about honest, simple, day to day issues in librarianship.

She goes on to discuss how technologists get all the “rockstar” status in our profession and no one cares about the bloggers who write practical things about doing the feminized work of dealing with kids. Since I’m guilty of writing the odd impractical technology rabblerousing bit, I want to make sure I’m also blogging some of these more practical day-to-day things too. It’s part of that whole advocacy for the importance of libraries and librarians thing to show that the non-technological stuff is important too. So here we go.