book review: pre-holiday 2013 roundup

I suppose I’m getting used to the fact that this is less a book review blog than it used to be. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll be more diligent in 2014? Regardless, here’s what I’ve read (for a certain value of) recently.

  • Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker. A sequel to In the Garden of Iden, but there’s another book in between that I haven’t read. I like these books because they’re all about the historical anachronism. This one wasn’t as tragic as the first though.
  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. This was the only Vonnegut novel I hadn’t read when I started Unstuck in Time, Gregory Sumner’s book about Vonnegut’s novels. I liked Galapagos more than I’d expect to like a book about inbreeding, stupidity and evolution. Which means I liked it a lot. Unstuck in Time was a decent bit of biography around what was going on in Vonnegut’s life when he was writing the novels, which, fine, whatever, but was also a really good Cole’s Notes kind of refresher on what was actually in those books. It tickled my Vonnegut itch which means I can keep tackling new books in my to read pile rather than rereading the ones I know I love.
  • Paintwork by Tim Maughan. Three short stories set in a near future SF world. I liked the Cuban giant fighting robots story the best, though they were all fine stories in a Strossian vein.
  • Battling Boy by Paul Pope. A boy-god is sent to Earthish to fight monsters as part of his adolescent trials. I love Pope’s art, but wish the story was less of a first chapter and more complete. Selah.
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. This is the second book in The Raven Boys cycle, and this one I liked a little less than the first because it was such a continuation, instead of introducing us to characters and situations. Yes, this almost directly contradicts my issue with Battling Boy. Whatever. I quote Whitman at you.
  • The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. I am not a history buff, but a friend who is one recommended this and I loved it. Part of the appeal is that I know shit about the crusades from the European perspective since my education wasn’t really big on celebrating wars of any sort, so now all I know about them beyond very basic Indiana Jones stuff is from this book about bickering Seljuk princes and the politics between Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad. Neat stuff did happen in the past (and it totally gave me a lot more context for when I play Crusader Kings, which I enjoy anyway).
  • Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon and Little Hits by Matt Fraction & a bunch of artists. These are good gritty-ish Marvel crime comics about what Hawkguy does when he’s not being an Avenger. Funny and clever. I read this because Fraction is probably my favourite superhero writer these days. The Pizza the Dog issue in Little Hits is the best though. The best.
  • The Land Across by Gene Wolfe. This one is about an American travel writer going to a strange European dictatorship. It feels like it’s going to be a Kafka pastiche but then it turns into a ghost story and noir secret police detective tale. It’s very weird and I really liked it. I like The City & the City better, mind you, but not by much.
  • Battle Bunny by John Scieszka, Mac Barnett & Matthew Myers. This is a picturebook a well-meaning grandma has given to a little boy about a Birthday Bunny that the boy has repurposed into the tale of thwarting Battle Bunny and his evil world domination plans. I love love love the idea of this so much. That said, I’m a little nonplussed by the gender role implications that boys have to turn everything into violent confrontation for it to be interesting and wish that the protagonist (who is the person defacing the “original” book) was a girl. I might have to write separately about this book.
  • Plow the Bones by Douglas F. Warrick. This collection of mostly dark SF short stories was excellent. The writing in its density and consideration of the implications of the premises reminded me of Ted Chiang. Really really good stuff.
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. This is a dystopian novel that’s far more realistic than most. Economic downturn has forced communities to hunker down and maybe hope for the best, while drugs and deprivation force people who have even less to descend upon the people who have a little bit. And in all this, a teenage girl with overdeveloped empathy (she feels injuries in other people) is building her own way of seeing and being in the world. It’s hard to take a lot of other fanciful dystopia at all seriously when this was done so well. I’m kind of ashamed it took me so long to read this classic.

Phew. I’m leaving out a few that I’ll try and do separate writeups for.

book review: the last policeman

I’ve probably mentioned before how rare it is for me to read a straight-up mystery (and not some sort of science fiction noir type thing) but that’s exactly what Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is. A man died in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. The newly-minted detective is the only person who doesn’t think it was a suicide. Investigation ensues.

The only complication is that in just over 6 months the world as we know it will end when Earth is hit by a huge asteroid.

So the book is a twisty little mystery involving insurance fraud and drugs and bad coffee in police briefing rooms, but also a look at why even do police-work when the world will soon be ending. Who really cares how one person ended up dead when six months from now everyone will be.

Now that little complication might, in your mind, vault the book into the science fiction category, but it really isn’t. The asteroid is affecting people because they’re all aware of their mortality, but it’s not causing tidal waves or changing the weather or making people flee to the Himalayas or shooting Bruce Willis off into space. It’s something that’s happening, just like war is something that happens in other stories.

I really liked the book even though it’s not my usual science fiction and in spite of the fact it’s the first in a trilogy. (SPOILER: The case is resolved and the book ends still many months before the asteroid hits, leaving room for the next books to remain pre-apocalyptic).

book review: the quantum thief

I loved Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief so much. It’s about a thief who gets broken out of an eternal Dilemma Prison (where you enact the Prisoner’s Dilemma with copies of yourself and the rest of the prisoners in adjoining virtual cells forever) in order to steal something very important on Mars. There is also a hotshot young detective being groomed by one of Mars’ vigilantes who thinks he’s working on a case about uploaded soul privates but the truth is much weirder.

The society on Mars is called the Oubliette and it’s all about privacy controls and the access people allow to others. The currency is time until the person’s soul is uploaded into one of the Quiet, the slave machines that keep the world functioning until they get reincarnated. The Oubliette is quite chicly primitive to some of the other cultures in the solar system and it’s all just amazing. The world-building around a cat and mouse detective story was amazing (and very reminiscent of The City & the City). The characters were rakish and severe and outrageous and ultra-competent and awesome.

I highly recommend it if you like China Mieville’s more science-fictiony things or Charles Stross or want to think a bit harder than you would with an Alastair Reynolds book.

book review: embassytown

China Mieville writes awesome books. Embassytown is his latest, and I think it’s his best. I’ve been going on about it on Twitter for the last several days. My girlfriend is sick of hearing about it (till she gets the chance to read it).

It takes place (mostly) on a planet where there is a small settlement of humans who live in an enclave of the alien city. The aliens, known as Hosts, have a very strange language. If humans want to be understood by Hosts they need two humans with great empathic understanding of each other speaking Language at the same time. The Hosts don’t understand the noises humans make. They don’t even recognize recorded Language. They need someone to speak to them.

In Embassytown the people who can speak Language are the Ambassadors. They are human pairs bred and brought up to think and speak as one mind in two bodies. CalVin is two bodies (doppels) but one person. Asking which body is Cal and which Vin is unconscionably rude. They are one being. They undertake ablutions every morning to eliminate any minor differences that might have crept in over the previous day.

The aliens are way weirder.

Avice is the protagonist of the tale, and she’s not an ambassador (or even half of one). She was trained to go travelling through the Immer, which is the stuff that lets worlds connect, regardless of their universal location (something similar is used in the RPG Diaspora). She left and came back and this is her story. She’s also a simile in Language.

What makes Mieville so fucking good is how he makes you twist your brain into understanding these concepts, setting up this world and making it understandable, and then smashes the whole thing to pieces. Thinking back on it, this might be why Kraken was good but not Holy Shit good. He’s at his best when he’s not a conservative creator. His characters aren’t about protecting the status quo. Not just characters change in his stories, the world has to change.

This book is about colonialism and the capacity to change the way you think through language. I don’t think it’s as much of a mindfuck as The City & The City in terms of how the reader has to think to understand the world, but I think he’s telling a story that’s more compelling. It feels more universal as it buzzes your brain.

Five stars. Great book. Should win awards.

book review: kraken

I loved the fuck out of this book. Kraken is China Mieville’s second book to come out in the last year. It’s a lot fatter than The City & The City but more straightforward. Basically there’s a giant squid preserved at the Darwin Centre in London. And then it disappears. We follow a bunch of characters (primarily the curator who discovered the missing squid) who’re trying to find out where it went and why and how. There are occult cops, and apocalyptic squid-cults, and people learning about the weirdness in London through internet forums. There’s a crime boss who is known as Tattoo because he was magically imprisoned on some guy’s back as a tattoo. This crime boss has a workshop where he does experiments on people and changes them into living radios and bipeds with fists for hands (and dicks). There are Londonmancers and djinn, and the Sea has an embassy for those in the know. Super fucking cool book.

It was slightly less “spin in a completely new direction at each turn” than Iron Council (which is my favourite Mieville) and not as much of a mindfuck as The City & The City (tied for favourite), but yes, great stuff.

If you like it, and play roleplaying games, check out Unknown Armies from Atlas Games. It’s a game that does a lot of similar things with a bit more structure to make it gamable.

book review: the city & the city

I’ve already talked a bit about China Mieville’s The City & The City, but here’s the review. Wow. Not that it was mind-blowing in the story. I mean, it was a detective story, there was a mystery and a detective trying to solve it. All right. Cool. In the end the mystery gets solved and we find out who did what and how. Great. If that was all it was I would not be nearly so jazzed about it, but even taken just on that level it’s a good mystery story. I didn’t feel let down when the pieces fell into place (and with this book it’s important that those pieces didn’t “come together”) and the tale was about smart people doing smart things. No idiocy required.

Except.

The world Mieville creates here is a piece of inspired idiotic madness that I hated and loved to fucking pieces. I hated the idiocy of people living right next to each other being forced to “unsee” the things that were right there. But I loved that we’re seeing these cities through the eyes of a person who believes in the boundaries and their importance. It would have been so much easier to do this story from the point of view of a character like the reader, someone who doesn’t get the boundaries between the two cities, who would have to have it explained. But that would have been so unsatisfying in comparison. The way the book is written, you’re gradually introduced to the idea of the two cities because it’s normal. The narrator doesn’t say “This is so weird!” because that’s our role as the reader. By the time we get a tourist character who behaves the way you or I would in this mad city, we’re on the narrator’s side, but we can see ourselves in these interlopers.

This is a book I feel like I’m going to need to take apart to see how he did it so beautifully. Through the whole reading I was thinking “how could this possibly have happened?” and the book stays resolutely away from giving us an answer. Even though archaeologist characters abound. Speculation about the nature of the Cities fuels the whole thing, and even though it couldn’t possibly work in real life, the book states as fact how it does. And he does it in such a way you believe it. So fucking good.

Even though I read it in 2010, this was probably my favourite SF novel from 2009. Although looking at my shelves a bit more closely it was probably only the second SF novel I read published in 2009. (The other was Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, see my review here, which was very good in plausible worldbuilding kind of way but lacked The City & the City’s compelling story.)

that was a long goddamned day

I’ve been reading 2666 but because it’s divided into five parts, I’ve been breaking it up with other (lighter) books in between. (I owe you teeming handfuls a review of American Gods; it’s coming.) Right now I’m reading The City and the City and I just love it. It’s about a crime that happens in a city where there’s another city right there sharing the same streets but they’re in different countries and in each city you aren’t allowed to see (or interact with) the things that are happening in the other. Things aren’t invisible; you are not allowed to see them. If you look at someone/thing in the other city too closely you’ve broken the rules and the all-powerful group that deals with Breaches comes and takes you away. Possibly to kill you, but I’m not done the book yet (I’ll review it for reals when I am).

This organization, Breach, is so powerful they could act with utter impunity, but if it’s not an emergency they have to follow the rules and be asked to handle things. I like this common idea of powerful entities having rules to follow. Vampires can’t cross running water. Police need a warrant. Breach must be asked. But. I don’t care about the little guy breaking the rules. In fact, I expect it, and get sort of sad when the powerless person doesn’t try doing something other than follow the rules. I’m having a weird time with how few people agitate against Breach in The City and the City. There are some, but I keep on wanting to shout at everyone, “You can see things! You shouldn’t have to unsee them!” But it’s a book and the characters (thus far) are well enmeshed in their setting.

A lot of fiction I read deals with the individual and celebrates the individual, especially in the face of power. For example, there’s an article I linked to a long time back about Murakami always wanting to be on the side of the egg not the wall, and you know how I feel about Murakami stories. Yesterday I watched a National Film Board movie from the 60’s called “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.” He was all young and bright-eyed. In one bit Pierre Berton is trying to get young Leonard Cohen to say what he stands for, what great idea drives him, what issue burns in his soul. And Leonard Cohen says, “No idea; I just check if I’m in a state of grace.” His companion explains that Leonard Cohen is talking about the task of the individual to live one’s own life, but Leonard Cohen is sort of dismissive. I like that.

Of course, it’s easy to “identify” with the powerless when you’re a white guy with a beard and a Mac.