Thursday, January 31, 2013

Re-reads: Umberto Eco's FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM #OneBookAtATime

Um, if you haven't read this book, this post is probably going to make no sense to you whatsoever.

Every time I pick up Foucault's Pendulum again, I worry that this read is going to be the ever-looming Last Read, the occasion when I have to admit to myself that I have drained the last dregs of utility and enjoyment from this, my favorite of all novels ever. Or, worse, that I'm going to arrive at the point where I decide I have overrated it and feel like a fool. Or...

But here's the thing. This book is really the keystone of my intellectual life, the point of origin of all of the obsessions that have plagued and enriched it from the very first time I snuck it from my mother's nightstand, wondering if it was going to be as challenging and awesome as The Name of the Rose had been, at age 16.*

Oh yes, oh yes it was. I had picked up a bomb that was going to send shockwaves through the rest of my existence. Listen, I'm not exaggerating. Every single interest that consumes me (except outerspace and transhumanism, the only ones from my childhood that survived this encounter, really), I can trace back to something I encountered in this novel, was baffled by and had to follow up, or just thought was really wickedly funny. And yes, that includes entomology, I suspect, for even in my serious insect-phobic youth I was captivated by passages in which Eco described the bizarre mechanical and scientific apparatuses in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers as the products of the nightmare of a deranged entomologist.

As an adult with some experience of the real world now, I know that I could have picked better role models for myself than Jacopo Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon.** The trio participates as little in actual life as they can, preferring to observe snarkily on the sidelines (well, Casaubon has a spell of actually experiencing things in Brazil, but then he is the young one of the three). And what snark, what glorious, glorious snark. The School of Comparative Irrelevancies alone, in which the three outline a whole imaginary curriculum of ridiculous or impossible subjects like "Crowd Psychology in the Sahara" and "Urban Planning for Gypsies" is still one of the funniest passages I've ever read, even though I know it line by line like a high school debate geek knows Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But the point is, I adopted as heroes a trio of skeptics and sneerers whose greatest fear would be to be thought of as believing in something. I have paid the price for that.

But I would not change a thing. I cannot imagine my life without a library full of texts on Christian heresies and Manichaeism, of Marsilio Ficino and Paracelsus and Carlo Ginsburg... and James Hillman and Ginette Paris and all the other tracers out of the history of ideas and crackpottery, all the attempts to understand how other people attempted to understand the universe, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, with imagination if not with fact. The Nag Hammadi library is there. So is about a third of the Loeb classics offerings, collected from secondhand shops over the years (though I dug Greek mythology before FP, I wasn't nearly as into the philosophy and history of the Greeks and Romans before this). Listen, if I were to tie a piece of string to all of the books in my library that connect me back to Foucault's Pendulum, well, that room of my house would probably be solid twine.

But so, does it still stand up? I'm sure I cannot give an objective assessment at this point, but if standing up can mean still bringing meaning to me, then yes. For now I am much closer to Belbo's age than to Casaubon's, and his regrets make more sense to me, and his sense of emptiness is more nearly mine now. I think I am more courageous; I want to think Belbo has served me as a sort of self-defeating prophecy, as Robertson Davies' character of Parlabane became for me later on, a personification of the negative consequences of saying, to everything, "Do you really think so?" as a way of dismissing belief, squelching passion, preventing being taken in. Belbo who hummed literature so as to avoid creating any. Belbo who, more than either of the others, played a nasty joke at the expense of a pack of true believers that, honestly, pretty much demanded to be punked on just the epic scale the trio's Plan punked them, and wound up just as much the butt of it as the credulous seekers did when they took him all too seriously.

Funny enough, several of my closest friends (geographically and in my heart) are Templar seeker types like those the trio punks in this novel. And really, sometimes I don't know how they put up with me, because they bring out my Inner Belbo like nobody's business. But all the crazy paths my reading and studies have taken in emulation of Belbo and Diotallevi and Causabon have, I think, left me with enough of a command of the language of belief that we can still converse satisfyingly. My friends' belief is as sincere as my disbelief, but nobody's trying to convert anybody (I don't think...?) and we can all find humor (see also an old, old post from my old, old blog of mine in which we did just that one night at our favorite local dead animal dive bar in Saratoga, WY) in talking about it. I think. I mean, they still ask me out for drinks...

This is feeling more like Confessions of a Pretentious Skeptic Wanker than a post about my favorite novel, but I suppose it still says something about said novel that it got its hooks into me so very deeply. Part of it may have just been the timing; had I encountered it later in life I might have thought it merely extraordinarily good. I like to think I wouldn't roll my eyes at it, the way people who see Buckaroo Banzai or This is Spinal Tap for the first time too late in life always seem to do, to the unreasoning range of those of us who first saw those films as teenagers when you're supposed to. Heh.

*Little knowing that in not too many years time, I would be living in the orbit of Eco's translator, William Weaver, who joined the faculty at Beaudacious Bard College about halfway through my career there. I got to meet him a handful of times but never had the opportunity to take a class with him. But still, funny old world, innit? And at around the same time came Chinua Achebe, and I missed Caleb Carr by just a year or two.

**Oh, Casaubon. The Sam Spade of culture. Little did I know when I formed the ambition to be you that in just a decade or so you would be made surpassingly obsolete, not because, as I might have feared in 1986, nobody gave a crap about what you could find for them anymore, but because the internet would enable us all to do your job effortlessly! And Casaubon, just your name led me in so many directions... adopting the Renaissance philologist Isaac Casaubon as an sort of totemic hero and leading me to discover another of my all-time favorite novels, George Eliot's Middlemarch, because Casaubon.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Robert Silverberg's THE BOOK OF SKULLS #OneBookAtATime

Elevator pitch time: Robert Silverberg's "Sci Fi Masterwork" The Book of Skulls is In the Company of Men meets The Holy Mountain* but in, you know, prose. Only I'm pretty sure I'm expected to forgive all of the scorchingly misogynist** elements of the former because it's a product of its time. Only I'm kind of failing at the forgiving thing. But it has enough remarkable qualities to make me really want to find a way to forgive it, but forgiving it feels like a bit more gender treachery than I'm comfortable with nursing in my heart and so I'm having a real David Foster Wallace-style internal conundrum about this damnable book.

It was about 1/3 of my way into The Book of Skulls that I realized I was eyeball deep in the first genuine hate read of my life. But also that I could not stop admiring what Silverberg was pulling off here, even as I seethed with hatred and ill wishes for all four of his protagonists.

The Book of Skulls tells the story of four Harvard boys who have decided to make a spring break road trip to Arizona, following up on some esoteric research they've done that has led them to the cautious but fervent conclusion that the secret to eternal life/youth/vigor is to be found at a secret desert monastery there. Said Harvard boys being, in their four different ways, exactly the kind of nasty, bullying know-it-all jerks that I chose to attend a fraternity-free liberal arts hippie college in the forest to avoid. As in it's not just their misogyny that makes them unpleasant. Super-rich, carelessly arrogant Timothy; driven, ruthless, tightly-wound Oliver; bitter, cynical, sneering Ned (who is also a bit of an awful caricature of a gay/bisexual man); and scrawny, scholiastic, intelectually domineering Eli (a bit of a caricature of the Manhattan Jew) redeem themselves only in odd moments of conversation, mostly in the book's second act in Arizona, when they start really wrestling with the fascinating questions of if this quest of theirs could possibly see fulfillment, what it would really mean to live forever (in a strong and healthy young body), belief, faith, and each other. Lots of tasty talk about metaphysics, for those of you who enjoy that sort of thing, which I do.

And we get to know them really, really well, because the duties of first person narrator are shared equally among them, chapter by chapter, the narrating stick tossed around the circle like a skittle. Which, yes, is one of this novel's many stunning technical achievements, because The Book of Skulls could definitely pass Robert Anson Heinlein's Godbody test.***

This all comes to the fore with stunning rapidity, long before Arizona, though, because the immortality they seek has some mighty interesting strings attached: for anyone to succeed, four must apply together, and of those four, only two may receive the boon. Of the other two, one must willingly sacrifice himself (as in suicide) and one must be murdered by the other applicants. That's a hell of a scenario to play out and spend a whole novel entertaining, and Silverberg gets enough mileage out of it to make an infinite number of trips from Massachusetts to Arizona.

Before they're even out of Manhattan, the boys are all making their cases for what the outcome is going to be -- if the claim/offer doesn't turn out to be bunk. Interestingly, they all seem to agree, and to make a very persuasive case for it, each with his own arguments as to how and why the predicted outcome would be so. And, but here's the thing, this happens many, many times through the novel. Every few passes 'round of the narrative skittle, the reader is persuaded of a different outcome, while simultaneously unable to dismiss the previous versions thereof. This is utterly, jaw-droppingly masterful.

And there's more masterful where that came from.  We're not just dealing with the present Timothy, Oliver, Ned and Eli here. We're dealing with their past selves, and their projections of themselves, imaginally, into an infinite future (of these, only Eli really bothers to plan out what he might do with all that time, and his plans are wonderfully grandiose; of the four he's the least loathesome by kind of a lot. Of the four). And that's not all, either, because, like I saw happening in Dostoevsky's Poor Folk,in addition to the different versions of the characters in the voyage through time, we're also dealing with each character's projections, his internal emulators, of the other three. I'm too lazy to do the math right now, as usual, but it's somewhere upwards of seven versions of at least of the four characters being juggled around in Silverberg's and our heads at pretty much every given moment in the narrative, and it never gets confusing or annoying or anything but stunningly brilliant.

But still, as I believe I've mentioned already, I hated these characters and I wished them ill. So even as I was riveted watching their fascinatingly ugly (and yet weirdly also tender, because there are real emotional bonds there) group dynamics, what really kept me reading was my ill-wishing hope that they were all heading for doom, or at least disappointment.****

Yes, I read this book fervently hoping for an Alejandro Jodorowsky "zoom back camera" moment for this quartet, so I could point and laugh and say it served them right -- but as story got into its second act, at the mysterious monastary, and I realized how much I was thinking of The Holy Mountain as I read, and I further recalled that this novel and this film are almost exact contemporaries of one another (The Book of Skulls was first published in 1972; The Holy Mountain was first released in 1973), and I managed to dial back the hate for a while. This was because, awful as these Silverberg boys are, they are not a patch on the assembly of asshats that Jodorowsky paraded on pretty much the same quest.

So perhaps the point both Silverberg and Jodorwosky had in mind at the time, a time of turmoil, ugliness and let-down -- Vietnam, Watergate, violent protests and overreactions to protest, the sexual revolution (which, I just read yesterday, may well have had as much to do with penicillin and its power to cure syphilis as it did with the birth control pill -- maybe even more so) in its wild and heady pre-AIDS days, etc. -- was the idea that we have to go through  an ugly, frightening, appalling stage (in other words, an adolescence) in order to develop into something finer? Most people think caterpillars are ugly, and even the ones that grow into the prettiest butterflies often cause a LOT of economic/aesthetic/ecological damage by eating like hogs while they're caterpillars (though the ecological and economic damage they cause is abetted by our agricultural practices, of course, just like arrogance and misogyny and other horrible character traits can also be laid at a society's door, if no one is bothering to take corrective/preventative action before the kids are turned loose on the world "young, dumb and full of cum").

Regardless of whether this attempt-to-forgive has any merit, I'm still stonked with admiration at this book. This is very different from loving it. I just recognize it as a wildly successful work of art. And hey, it did something that many say art should: it made me uncomfortable.

And hey, I did have fun hoping that the monastic order waiting for the boys in Arizona would be those magnificent bastard hoaxters, Casaubon, Diotallevi and Jacopo Belbo from Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

Now I think I'm going to read that, since it's thematically related to this one I've just finished and all. Plus, it's very likely my favorite book of all time, it's been many years since I've indulged, it always makes me smile, and after mind-vomiting my way through this, I need to smile for a bit.

*And they really, really, did not need to meet ever.

**And homophobic, and anti-Semetic, and anti-Catholic elements, too, but those fade into the background in the light of the casual awfulness with which women are treated, described or portrayed here. Even in a moment we are perhaps supposed to read as laudably sympathetic/empathetic, when one of the protagonists is observing to himself that the waitress serving them at a greasy spoon has had a long day, he has to throw in a remark like "there was an acrid, cunty smell coming off her." Really? Really? REALLY? And then there's the moment when one character confesses a rape to another, and that other is only actually interested in the incest angle of said rape. This is not a plot spoiler, by the way, more of a trigger warning. The detail of the confession has absolutely nothing to do with the plot except it needed to be something shocking. Well, uh, congratulations, Captain Asshat Silverberg. But so seriously, I would rather read a book with no women in it at all than one in which they are always and only treated as objects, and objects of contempt to boot. I would gladly read a fan-edit of The Book of Skulls in which all the appearances of my gender had been excised. Gladly.

***Godbody also being a novel told in multiple first person accounts, to a degree of perfection that is truly astonishing, Heinlein said of Ted Sturgeon's last and finest novel that a person could, if he or she had a friend choose passages at random from the text to read aloud (preferably without the guesser seeing where the passage is physically in the book), unerringly identify who the narrator is just from a sentence or two. I have done this several times; have even tried it with both people who have and haven't read the book making the selections, and it didn't matter which of those my reader of the moment was; I could always tell.

****So this is a very different enjoyment from that I gained from watching the antics and machinations of the Bastards In Space of Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space novels.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bella DePaulo's SINGLED OUT #OneBookAtATime

I'm tempted, this time around, to just share all the passages I highlighted, but that would just be lazy, and would probably somehow confirm some of you in your stereotyping of older single women as selfish and flippant and useless and whatnot. Heh.

For yea, I am one of those, unashamedly in my 40s and not only unmarried but uninterested in changing that, and I've been the target of every single (heh) one of the crappy remarks, employment practices, interrogations and dismissals Bella DePaulo calls out as a sneaky form of prejudice she names "singleism." But I did not turn to Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After for a categorical list of injustices to get steamed up over, nor did DePaulo intend the book as any kind of call to arms (though she does devote a chapter towards the end to imagining, maybe a little wistfully, what an America that did not discriminate against the never-married, the divorced or the widowed might look like); that last bit of the subtitle, in white lettering on the cover, is key. For while we do get a laundry list of ways in which daily, if not hourly, encounters with "smug marrieds" can be emotionally and psychologically draining, in which popular media (fictional and "reality") dismisses categorically the idea that choosing not to hunt down a spouse is in any way valid (or possible), in which the government denies singles the right to designate a beneficiary for their Social Security checks in the event of their deaths but lets widowed spouses keep on getting paid for life, in which businesses routinely demand that singles pay extra to subsidize their cheaper-per-person couples rates for travel and dining and entertainment, in which employers assume that just because one is not married one is always free to work the extra hours or take the unwanted business trip (and not only that, but really owes it to married co-workers not to tear them away from their all-important families) -- that is not, by a long shot, all that we get.

What we also get is someone who doesn't take media reports of half-assed scientific studies at face value (DePaulo is herself a scientist). She looks at the data herself, shows it to us, and in the process debunks most of the popular mythology that says marriage is better for one. For instance, she finds in study after study purporting to "prove" that married people are happier and healthier that the data was "cheated" -- those happy healthy people who got counted as married were only the ones who were still married. All those divorced and widowed people got clumped in with the never-marrieds, and, let's be honest, dragged our numbers way down. When the data was broken into four, rather than two, categories (still-married, never-married, divorced, widowed) the still-marrieds come out on top, but by a negligible margin (and, interestingly, in one study that did not, as most of these do, look at just a single snapshot of time but instead over a good long period of subjects' lives, on average those "still marrieds" had started out marginally happier to begin with). Who's next happiest? Oh, look, the never marrieds. But all those "how to find a spouse" and "case for marriage" and "single people suck" crusaders rarely, if ever, mention that.

And, too, the book is loaded with anecdotes about unmarried lives, with or without children, which positively brim with unrecognized quality of life -- Condoleeza Rice's, for instance; David Souter's (the book was written before Elena Kagan joined the Supreme Court, but I bet she is a part of DePaulo's pantheon now!); Ralph Nader's; Barbara Walters'. What would our world have been like without them taking on the demanding and challenging roles they did?* And how do you think it feels in interview after interview to always be asked (usually by a "smug married" journo) if it doesn't all feel kind of hollow without a special someone to share it with? And if the high-achieving single in the hot seat says something along the lines of "anything but hollow" well, he or she is just in denial or doesn't understand what he or she is missing, and probably isn't mature enough anyway.

Unsaid, most of the time, is that hey, the married person doesn't understand what he or she is missing, either.

But so, once again, I'm part of the choir being preached to, here. I am sometimes lonely, I'll admit, but it's not the lack of a spouse I feel so much as the lack of intimate friends in close proximity; the city in which I live is a profoundly heartlandish one, in which life is centered around the spouse and kids and offers little to those without them but doing time in a bar, and I've had difficulty establishing relationships in which I'm anything more than a casual once-in-a-while pal, someone to see a movie with once or twice a year but otherwise on whom it's perfectly okay to cancel last-minute because hey, I didn't have to hire a babysitter or whaever. I have wonderful friendships all over the world, even in other parts of Wyoming, but the city where my job is considers non-marrieds like me to be all but lepers, and that's even before it's discovered that I'm "not even trying." Which, contrary to smug married belief, does not mean I've given up; just that I've never really considered OMGGOTTAFINDAHUSBAAAAAAAND just for the sake of HAVINGAHUSBAAAAAAND to be much of a priority. Should I actually find someone who makes me want to give up my single life, that's fine, but I find the idea that I should devote my time and energy to finding someone who wants to shackle me to be patently absurd. To say nothing of finding someone who wants to knock me up; that's easy (and anyway, there's such a thing as Zero Population Growth, in which I fervently believe and furthermore believe I should practice what I preach).

Someone, and I'm pretty sure it was Theodore Sturgeon in his wonderful novel Godbody, once observed that people who hate being alone do not consider themselves good company. I first read that book when I was a teenager, and I think I probably took this message (one of the many many wonderful and wise things Sturgeon shared in that and his other writing) very much to heart; I have cultivated myself to be good company for myself -- and I have also developed a talent for enjoying strangers -- some of my favorite memories are of random conversations in airport bars or on trains or in line at a coffee bar or walking my dog. I seem very good at reading people and finding common ground with them, enough to make them smile for a moment or a few hours. Would I have this talent, I wonder, if I'd spent most of my life hunting down and then focusing to the exclusion of everyone else on a husband who must be, by contemporary dogma, "my everything" (and will expect that of me in return)?

Would I have the time and attention to spend on my friends' children when they need a break from being someone's spawn or student and just want to be a person for a little while? Or just need a little help with some science homework?

And this is not even mentioning the online relationships I've established, many of which go back decades, that I value deeply.

Is there a tinge of whining to DePaulo's book, as some have complained? Yes. But she is very careful not to even appear to equate singleism with all of the serious civil rights/discrimination issues that have beset us as a society (racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc), and seems more interested in teasing out why treating singles as they so often get treated is still okay (perhaps the last remaining prejudice it's still okay to have, though fat shaming is still awfully common even among people who consider themselves enlightened and tolerant), and what the cumulative effects of these subtle annoyances and expectations might be over a life time -- and how remarkable and awesome it is that single people manage to be happy anyway. It takes more guts and fortitude, she says, to be single in a "matrimaniacal" society than to do the expected, conformist thing and get married. Which, now I just want to race home to my worrying (still married) (to each other) parents (both their daughters are now gleefully in their 40s and unattached) and crow to them about how their lack of grandchildren and sons-in-law is actually proof of how awesome they were in raising us; we both grew up self-sufficient, brave, strong, capable and emotionally mature enough to enjoy life without the need for A PARTNER. And anyway, from a ZPG standpoint, our family is already in the red (our cousins have not only replaced themselves, but the two of us, too, and one more to spare).

But so anyway, the next time you see a couple of early middle aged broads yucking it up at a riverside diner or in the local hot springs or having coffee and none of us happens to be wearing a ring on that finger, maybe withhold your certainty and judgment -- and your humblebragging pity -- for a moment. There are lots of ways to live a life. And lots more ways to be happy than just sharing a bed with somebody for a few decades. But if you must make a faux-friendly remark about it, be prepared to be patronized back in return. Poor little marrieds, like Linuses and their blankies, will they ever grow up? We don't really want to bust out rhetoric like that, but push us and we just might.

Go, Bella, go!

*DePaulo has some somewhat tart remarks about some what-might-have-beens that the choice to put spouse above country/public sphere duty prevented, namely: President Colin Powell.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Oh man. Ever hear about a book that sounded so exactly like it was written just for you that you were almost afraid to read it because there was no possible way it was as brain-explodingly awesome as you desperately wanted it to be and so you let a whole year go by between OMG MUST BUY NOW purchase and actually starting to read it?

I mean, come on, tiny, tiny humans who ride ants and locusts around like horses! Who share mounds and pheromone signatures with various species of ants! As if Edmund O. Wilson started writing science fiction! Or at least epic fantasy! I mean, who's been peeking at my Christmas list?

So yeah, my expectations for this were unreasonably high going in, and I had to sort of grit my teeth and risk them being unmet to even start reading this book. The question thus becomes: were they met?

More like confounded. Prophets of the Ghost Ants is one of the most unusual novels I've ever read, and may genuinely qualify as unique. Though I suppose there might be some who want to describe it as Dune with insects, that still doesn't quite capture it. For one thing, the fanatical monotheistic desert tribe are the bad guys. Though there is something very Muad'Dib-ish about our hero.

Anand*, starts out life as the lowest of the low, a bottom-of-the-heap half-caste** among a vast tribe of humans-and-leafcutter ants (the humans are essentially parasitizing the ants, but no one but Anand ever wants to face up to that fact) but soon learns a bit more about his true heritage and special destiny, like so many fantasy heroes do. In this case, it's because his mother came from a tribe of roach-herders, and while this bit of interbreeding makes Anand even more revolting to the leafcutter people, the roach-herders think he's destined to improve their lot, by improving the way they get treated. He gets betrothed to a very pretty girl and just has to wait until he's sixteen to take up his exalted role in his mother's tribe.

But until then, he's stuck being an ant guy. And when the human queen of the leafcutter tribe gives birth to a daughter, by tradition and necessity, the mound must fission (after the fashion of anthills), with a certain percentage of the mound's ant and human populations striking off to found a new colony elsewhere. Guess who has to go with them.

Even worse: there are other populations of insects-and-people out there, also expanding their territories. And some of them don't like what leafcutters do to the landscape, no, not at all. And while some of them are secular, somewhat happy-go-lucky quasi-anarchist/demarchist types who ridicule the idea that people should be as socially stratified as ants, some others are religious fantatics, who live with and ride the titular ghost ants (though for the purposes of this book, ghost ants are all the way transparent, and don't just have see-through abdomens. Oh, and they're also huge [for ants] and aggressive as hell, so, um, yeah) and won't rest until all the humans in their world worship the termite god who originally gave them succor in the desert to which their founders were banished long ago -- a desert caused by the defoliating, despoiling ways of the leafcutter tribes. D'oh!

So in the midst of its speculations about what life might be like for a humanity that is the only vertebrate land animal to survive a series of stellar disasters, and could  only do so by evolving into something as small as the arthopods that are the planet's only other survivors, Prophets of the Ghost Ants is at bottom a clash of civilizations. The leafcutter tribe is top-down, its rigid social structure not dictated so very much by its coexistence with/parasitism on its ants as by a set of inherited religious beliefs enforced by a fat and lazy priestly caste; the anarchic freedom-lovers are willing to live and let live as long as no one tries to coerce anybody; the ghost ant riders are a dire threat to both. And moving among them all as a sort of triple (if not quadruple) agent is Anand, emissary to the leafcutters from the democracy, spy on the ghost ant fanatics, but really only looking to reconnect with his beloved roach tribe and his destined bride. Would I have enjoyed this without the insect angle? Probably not nearly as much, since stripped of its entomological content it would just be another bog standard fantasy plot, albeit with a welcome attention to the idea that feudalism isn't the only way to go, with a little bit of Moses of the Mandricanthites thrown in for good measure.

What saved it for me was the little things, like for instance, the way that water behaves in this world, which Carlton got very, very right. At the scale of an ant, surface tension becomes much more of a force than we experience at this scale; an ant can pick up a drop of water, hold it above its head, and collapse it into its mouth.**** And this is very much in evidence in Prophets of the Ghost Ants, as when Anand, in a highly symbolic gesture, "made a show of dunking his hands in the bulging dome of water in the basin." This coupled with details about scents and pheromones, and the relish with which Anand plays on the fact that even in this world, most people have an unreasoning fear/disgust reaction to roaches, kept it fun for me.

Oh, and the battle scenes. I think Carlton had the most fun cooking those up and imagining all the different military applications for, e.g., rhinocerous beetles and night wasps and locusts, oh my. Wonder if he's read Jeff Lockwood.

Of course it turns out this is merely book one of a planned "Antasy" trilogy. Aren't they all. Except, well, he had me at Antasy.

*This is the second time in as many books I've run into an important character seemingly named after an important disciple of the Buddha; a professor in Nexus was explicitly so named, as befits a Thai monk and teacher. Here, though, we only get sly references to the possible, er, additive qualities of such a name. Amusing coincidence, anyway.

**It's one of the conceits* of Prophet of the Ghost Ants that the teeny tiny humans adopt the rigid social structures of the species with which they co-habitate, from a queen who gives birth to multiple (as in five or six) sons almost every time (daughters are rare, and have consequences) and who actually rules the mound through, in the case of Anand's leafcutter ant people, 127 castes of worker.
*And this novel has many conceits, starting with the idea that humans that tiny would still be as intelligent and neurologically plastic as you and I are, though I'm not sure a brain reduced to that scale could possibly be complex enough? Anyway, this strikes me as almost as funny as the stereotypical giant human-sized insect scenario which I know for a fact is physically impossible because the muscle-to-exoskeleton ratio of creatures that big would not allow them to move at all. So what; we've rolled with Them! all this time, so I can roll with ant-sized people with human-sized intellects. And yes, this is my first footnote of a footnote. I'm turning into David Foster Wallce.

***He has written some literary fiction, Anthill, but I've yet to read it.

****I first learned of this from Richard P. Feynman. Yes, that Feynman. Of the diagrams and figuring out what went wrong with Challenger. He was a curious character.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ramez Naam's NEXUS #OneBookAtATime

I think I do a pretty good job of keeping up on developments in art and science via my RSS feeds, but somehow I seem to have missed the news that Ray Kurzweil and Robert Ludlum had a bastard child together and sent him back in time to grow up as a little Egyptian boy. But, you know, I can't keep track of everything. And better late than never, on such discoveries, I say.

Fortunately for me, I'm not dependent on myself alone to stay on top of matters. I have people like Lee Harris and the rest of the gang at Angry Robot books on my team. And boy, am I glad they found this Ramez Naam guy.

Nexus is that rare treat, a serving of what I can only call neuropunk, a still unusual genre, the best other example I can come up with is probably Bruce Sterling's Distraction (which just happens to be one of my all-time favorite novels), though a case could certainly be made for Alastair Reynolds' Conjoiner-heavy Redemption Ark as well.* Like Distraction, Nexus concerns itself with human enhancement technology that poses some sticky ethical, legal and political questions but is out there in the world regardless, and gaining traction. But where Distraction takes place in an America that is so close to being a failed state as makes no odds, and deals at least in part with political figures who are exploiting the tech for various ends, in Nexus, the American government is still iron-strong and opposes the tech with all its military might, repressive policing and scare tactics. It's impossible, therefore, not to see parallels to the "wars" on drugs and terrorism in which our country is still engaged.

Which is where the Robert Ludlum/Tom Clancy DNA comes into the equation, for while one hero, Kaden Lane, is a neuro-hacker extraordinaire, who has, with the help of a small team, added so much functionality to a mindlinking nanotech street drug (that would be Nexus) as to make it a whole new thing, our other is a government agent Samantha Catarenes, herself cybernetically and biotechnologically enhanced to the eyeballs because sometimes to fight monsters one has to become a bit of one, who is so ideologically opposed to what Kade and his people have done that it's a wonder she doesn't claw his eyes out on their first meeting. Nexus has already shown tremendous potential as a tool for coercion, after all. The irony of a government using old-fashioned forms of coercion to suppress a new coercion tech that they don't control is addressed, but only barely; the tension is mostly between those like Kade and the ambiguous pseudo-villain Su-Yong Shu (a Chinese neuroscientist who seems suspiciously way smarter than everyone else on earth) who value its potential to liberate and enhance and transform humanity, and those like Sam and her masters, who are hung up on how much worse it could make life for those who don't choose to take advantage of its offerings. As if anyone wouldn't, am I right?

But never fear, the novel rarely sinks to didacticism. It's too busy also being an action thriller! There are lots and lots and lots of fight scenes, with everything from fists to stealth helicopters. Being the sort who twiddles her thumbs through big explosive action scenes in movies, I could have done with a bit less of this, but I understand why it was there; most other people twiddle their thumbs through the parts I find interesting. And some of the action scenes are quite important to the plot, and to the plot of the book's sequels, to which I am eagerly looking forward.

Some of my friends have complained that there is too much infodump in Nexus, but aside from the unnecessary and distracting "Briefing" interludes**, I didn't see that. Briefings aside, it was just right, balanced out by some nice character moments and some themes I wasn't expecting to encounter here, like the potential dovetailing of Buddhist practice with neurotech (most of the story takes place at a giant international neuroscience conference in Bangkok), though this last element made the excruciatingly long and over-the-top fight scenes all the more jarring.

This first novel is obviously just laying the groundwork for potential big, big stuff in Crux***, due out in September. And a lot of how I'll ultimately evaluate this novel will depend on what Naam does in the sequel. If it's just another violent technothriller with cool transhuman elements, I might be disappointed. At this point, though, I have faith that Naam has something more interesting in mind, that he's brave enough to try really exploring how tech like Nexus (which is not as far-fetched as some might think, as anyone who follows a science blog or two, or who reads Naam's non-fiction More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement [which I declined to finish because I sing in the choir he's preaching to there, and because his publisher apparently blew the editing/proofreading budget on whores and coke or something, but which you might still want to check out if that doesn't bother you as much as it does me] will know already) might fundamentally change our world. All signs point to that being the case, so far.

*In fact, one could read Nexus as a sort of earthbound version of the origin story of the Conjoiners without doing oneself any great mental violence. Har har.

**Why are so many authors relying on this device of fictitious "documentation" these days? It looks to me almost like a lack of confidence in one's storytelling chops, if not an insulting attitude towards readers who "aren't getting it." Authors, once you've earned that willing suspension of disbelief (and Naam did, right away, with a gloriously bizarre and hilarious first scene that I'll remember for a long, long time), readers happily fill in the blanks themselves. They might not fill them in exactly the way you want them to, but that's not your call! Give it a rest and just tell us a damn story.

***And I, for one, am grateful that the sequels won't be Sexus and Plexus. What whaaat?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Daniel F. Galouye's DARK UNIVERSE #OneBookAtATime

It's tricky to do a whole lot of world-building in just 154 pages, even if that world, as in Daniel F. Galouye's Dark Universe, is small and confined by nature. The trick is to be telegraphic, to let every line convey something about the plot, characters and setting all at once -- or to just let the world building take care of itself, let the reader's imagination do that work. I realized, as I read through this, that I prefer the latter.

I mention this because right from the first page, Galouye made the choice I favor less, and went a little overboard, to the point of raising goose eggs on my noggin with his invented slang and cursing and expressions of folk belief. This is a post-apocalyptic (nuclear war), underground world, and, as the title might just suggest, one in which there is maybe not so much light, but that does not mean that every other word coming from a character's mouth needs to be "Radiation this" and "Light that." To say nothing of substituting "period" for "day" in the context in which "gestation" means, more or less, "year." How could I not snicker like an adolescent?

It all reminded me more than a little bit of the South Park episode in which the Otters and Ostriches and other warring atheist types would use "science" as a substitute for "god" in common locutions. Oh my science!

And speaking of that, that same episode of South Park featured one Richard Dawkins, who named this book as his pick for "brilliant sci-fi that got away". And one can see why it would be dear tobhis heart, for the novel's hero, Jared, spends most of the story calling his people's cherished shibboleths into question and facing the consequences. Well, of course that's why he would like it.

To focus on either of these qualities -- annoying overuse of invented locution or hero-as-heretic -- is to miss what's amazing about this novel, though. I return to the world building, for Galouye has created a philosopher's delight of a universe, in which no one can recall what light or darkness actually are, and everyone has come to rely on other senses -- mostly hearing and smell -- to get around, to grow food (a must-be-engineered fungus they call manna that provides not only food but fiber and building material as well), to fight off predators (giant mutated "soubats"), and to perceive each other. As is legendary about the blind, these other senses are exquisitely highly developed in the dwellers of Galouye's underground world -- except among an offshoot tribe, the "Zivvers" who, it turns out, can see into the infrared spectrum, and are thus the only people in this story who actually use their eyes. They are rare exceptions to the rule here, though; everyone else echolocates, using "clickstones" and a giant central "echo-caster" to perceive their small world.

Galouye put a lot of thought and care into developing these cultures, and achieved something frankly marvelous thereby. That the plot of the story is a hackneyed coming-of-age/what-really happened narrative doesn't matter. Galouye succeeds in immersing the reader in a sightless cave of a universe, and in the process leads her to think about something she has always taken for granted, is taking for granted even as she reads his words: light ("silent sound" Jared calls it at first, struggling for words to describe the phenomenon to himself), and what it might be like to encounter it for the first time after generations without it.

Who would have thought a retelling of Plato's Allegory of the Den could be so absorbing?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Re-Reads: Alastair Reynolds' REVELATION SPACE #OneBookAtATime

Oh, the memory of the chills that ran up and down my spine when my sweetheart-at-the-time handed me this book. I couldn't tell you whether the cover art or the title thrilled me more. And then to find that the contents were worthy of both! Suddenly I had a new favorite living science fiction author. And this was his very first novel!

That was ten years ago. And I've lost track of how many times I have re-read Revelation Space since. Each time, I get completely lost in the atmosphere of awe, and the intricate noir-ish plotlines of Dan Sylveste, a noir Indiana Jones in space, Ana Khouri badass military bee-hatch and assassin, and Ilia Volyova triumvir of the giant lighthugger spaceship, the Nostalgia for Infinity. To say nothing of the grotesque, baroque horrors of the Melding Plague, a hybrid of biological and computer virus that corrupts flesh and machinery in equal measure and, as its name implies, melds the one into the other, resulting in a captain that is becoming one with his spaceship, and a city full of buildings that have warped to resemble giant vertical pieces of driftwood. I mean, wow!

And the book holds up to multiple re-reads, both in its own right and as the first in a trilogy. As is so often the case with my favorite novels, re-reading only enriches Revelation Space. To read it for the first time is to be distracted into focusing on Dan Sylveste and his travails of leading a vast program of space archaeology and holding political power on a distant research planet, losing that power, and being induced to reveal his lifetime of staggering secrets. All of this forms the main plot of the novel, but it is the stories of Ana Khouri and of Volyova and the rest of the crew of Nostalgia for Infinity that continue onward in Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. Sylveste's deeds and revelations are just what sets them in motion.

So this time, as Sylveste realized just how important the extinct alien race, the Amarantin*, are, and the greater theme of what came to be known as the Revelation Space Trilogy (coming up with a frankly chilling explanation for the Fermi Paradox) gets teased out, I focused more on Ana, whose story is frankly tragic: a soldier, wounded and temporarily cryo-suspended; shipped light years from home through a clerical error and separated from her husband, probably forever; manipulated first into acting as a sport-assassin for what amounts to a far-future reality TV show and then -- by two completely different parties -- into joining the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity. She is the only character to appear in all three volumes of the trilogy and its side-quel, Chasm City, but is kind of the Frodo of the piece (though she gets some moments; see below), mostly manipulated by others and only just keeping a piece of herself back -- though with such manipulators as she faces, that's probably quite heroic right there.

And our Frodo is thrown up against some of the most magnificently bitchy characters in all of science fiction: arrogant, selfish scientists (some of them acting from beyond the grave!), singleminded obsessive jackasses, would-be murderers with cosmic vendettas, sociopathic and psychopathic maniacs in charge of weapons that could destroy whole planets without even needing a change of batteries. The dialogue among these characters is just the best:
"You prick," Khouri said, spitting in the process. "You narrowminded, egotistical prick."
"Congratulations," Sylveste said. "Now you can progress to words with six syllables."
And this is before she has a plasma rifle pointed at her sort-of-ally's crotch!

And then there are the set pieces, which never get old -- the discovery of the ancient Amarantin city on the planet Resurgam; the Shadowplay chase through Chasm City and its "Mulch";  the unbelievably cool spacesuit-cum-shuttles by which Volyova and Khouri pull a Baumgartner to the surface of Resurgam: the vast baroque bulk of Nostalgia for Infinity and its haunting secret, which is also the secret not only of the Amarantin but of yet another and even more mysterious alien race from Sylveste's past. Like his fellow "New Weird" author China Mieville, Reynolds thinks big -- but Reynolds was a working astronomer, still at the European Space Agency while writing this book, so his weird is cosmic in scale and scientifically plausible. He hit me like a piece of space debris at hyperspace speeds and he's never disappointed me, as numerous entries on this blog demonstrate.

All that and he's a lovely bloke on Twitter. You'll probably hear a lot more about him from me this year

Also, check out this boffo cover for the Serbian (or Croatian?) language edition of the novel! Why couldn't this be the cover art for the American -- or any -- English language edition? It's even better than the one that originally gave me the chills! So much better. Look, that's totally Cerberus under attack by the bridgehead. The spaceship is maybe not as cool, but so what!

*And coming off of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men as I am, I couldn't help but imagine the Amarantin as his Seventh (Flying) Men. Hey, why not? It's my brain.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Olaf Stapledon's LAST AND FIRST MEN #OneBookAtATime

I'm not gonna lie, folks; of all the books I've tackled so far this year, Last and First Men has been the toughest challenge to my resolve to only read one book at a time. That's not to say it's by any means a bad book; it's part of the SF Masterworks Collection* for very good reasons. It's just that, well, gripping storytelling it ain't.

Penned in 1930 by a philosophy professor, Last and First Men is heavy on exposition and all but devoid of character, dialogue or even plot beyond "exploring the nature of the 18 races of man from First (20th Century earthbound Homo sapiens sapiens) to Last (Neptunian superbeings who live for thousands of years) and how their society kept on evolving and devolving and evolving again." The text is presented as a sort of lecture series on the history of humanity, delivered by a Last Men scholar who doesn't quite sneer at his predecessors and their flaws but doesn't exactly hold them in reverence, either. Indeed, often the prose reads like that of a 19th century natural history text on, say, social insects, albeit very sophisticated ones.

The early chapters of the novel are best read, by a 21st century sci-fi fan, as a strange form of alternate history a la, say, Harry Turtledove; in this case, our point of departure is not long after Last and First Men's original publication date, for nothing like World War II and the Holocaust even remotely figures in this extrapolation. Stapledon possessed an acute talent for that, but humanity has always been full of surprises! One can smile indulgently at how off base he was, but to do so is to completely miss why this book is a classic of the genre; after all, the rest of the 20th century is not even the first tenth of this book, and the First Men's story covers thousands of years of struggle (sometimes genocidal) to form a world government, the creation of a scientific religion in which "divine energy" is the object of worship and the purview of a rigid guild of scientists, and the development of a culture of abundance (no disease, no want, a flying car for everybody) that values strenuous physicality (and flight) above all else, to the detriment of human intelligence. With predictable results.**

But wait! Like I said, that's not even 25% of the book. I've never read any fiction so ambitious in scope, folks. The closest I can think of is maybe Stephen Baxter's Evolution, but even it just took on the life-span of life on planet Earth. Last and First Men covers "about two thousand million years", takes us, or a future version or 18 of us to the outer solar system, and teems with phrases like "Not till many hundred thousand years had passed did..." It's truly stupefying. It's also very, very clever; to encompass so much time in just 300 pages or so, it has to be. There's a mathematical progression governing the level of detail and verbiage devoted to each iteration of humanity; I suspect, though am not really a rigorous enough person to be sure of this, that this is an instance of exponential decay. At any rate, the narrative speeds up considerably once Stapledon has dispensed with our own species, the First Men***, and keeps on speeding up until eventually a million years can pass in a sentence fragment. At one point, ten million years pass because it's a time of barbarism and stasis. Well, okay, Mr. Stapledon; it's your Memorable Fancy.

For a giant William Blakean Memorable Fancy is what this book is, a visionary and somewhat allegorical tale spun out to illustrate the writer's philosophy, hopes and fears. I would love to see an edition of this book illuminated in the way that Blake did his works. It would be an eminently lovely thing.

Along the way, we get to watch Stapledon toss off a stunning array of concepts and ideas that were quite ahead of his time and the influences of which we can find throughout science fiction: the perils of genetic engineering, Peak Oil and its aftermath, the cyclical natures of high civilization and barbarism, aliens that are genuinely and profoundly alien (i.e. not Star Trek humanoids with extra nobbly bits on their faces), the fragility of knowledge, the notion that humans can easily evolve back into animals if care is not taken...

It's easy, in short, to see how Last and First Men came to be such a very influential book. People talk about how Heinlein originally dashed off all of the sci-fi tropes with which we have become so familiar, but for a lot of them, Stapledon was there first.

I wonder what his other novels are like.

*I didn't use that edition's cover to decorate this post because I liked this cover so very, very much better! I mean, look at it!

**Think Idiocracy meets Otto from A Fish Called Wanda.

***In his forward to SF Masterworks edition, the great Gregory Benford advises readers to consider skipping the "badly dated" first 20-25% of this novel, partly for reasons I've already observed (in addition to the wrong guesses at history, this first narrative teems with racial and national stereotypes, and of course gives women the shortest possible shrift) but also to spare American readers some tart observations from a British philosopher who was no great fan of capitalism and American cultural hegemony. But to skip these chapters would deprive the reader of the sensation of being swept along through time at an ever-accelerating rate that is one of this novel's unique and most exceptional offerings. If you're going to read it, read it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Jasper Fforde's LOST IN A GOOD BOOK #OneBookAtATime

"Confused is exactly how all cadets to Jurisfiction should enter their first assignment!" -- Miss Havisham to Thursday Next in Lost in a Good Book

Last summer, I dipped my toe into the weird waters of Jasper Fforde's chronicles of Thursday Next, voyager through fiction, literary detective, time traveler's daughter and hard-working civil servant in an alternate universe in which literature is taken way, way more seriously than it is in our own. And it took me a while to recover from all the crazy-cool insanity packed into that flawed but fun novel, The Eyre Affair, the experience of reading which was like hanging out with a precocious teenager who felt the relentless need to keep impressing one with his precocity every two minutes or so. Nice kid, don't want to discourage him or hurt his feelings, but dude!

Keep reading, my Fforde-loving friends encouraged. The series gets better.

My Fforde-loving friends were right, though we still have kind of a hot mess on our hands in this second installment.

There is time travel, and the consequences thereof -- a storyline involving the "eradication" not only of Thursday's husband, who was not rescued from drowning when he was two years old, but also of Thursday's father, who was never conceived. Yeah, like that. There is more bewildering fiction-delving of a kind that knocks the plot of The Eyre Affair into a cocked hat -- Thursday is still a LiteraTec operative, but has also, as part of her effort to un-eradicate her husband (by whom she is pregnant, even though he doesn't exist), been inducted into the corps of "Jurisfiction", a band of fictional characters who police literature to keep it from getting tampered with; Thursday is apprenticed to Miss Havisham (of Great Expectations fame, rotting wedding dress and all)* and gets sucked into Havisham's endless and bitter rivalry with the Red Queen. Yeah, like that. And, in one of the silliest and most clever scenes I've yet seen Fforde pull off,  Thursday's disciplinary hearing into her conduct within the text of Jane Eyre during The Eyre Affair that saved the novel from oblivion but gave it a happier ending (that happier ending being the one we know as canonical) is conducted by the Magistrate from Franz Kafka's The Trial. Yeah, it's like that.

Oh, and there's the little matter of impending doom; in December, 1985, something is going to happen that turns all organic life on planet Earth into pink slime. This is kind of Thursday's problem, too.

That's a lot of narrative pins to keep juggling, but Fforde does pull it off**. I would have liked it all just a little better without the extra layer of unnecessary faux supplementation he added to each chapter, though; Frank Herbert/Dune-style, he "quotes" from various fictional sources that do not really give the reader much in the way of additional insight and do, sometimes, telegraph events and appearances that would have been more enjoyable as surprises in the novel text. This crutch is a lot less annoying than the narrative-voice gaffes I found so annoyingly distracting in The Eyre Affair, but it's still something I fervently hope Fforde outgrows as he gains confidence in his ability to tell, and his readers' ability to follow, these richly complex and rewarding stories. As it was, about halfway through the book I simply started to ignore them, and yes, the second half of the book seemed much more enjoyable.

And since this was already a very enjoyable book, that's really saying something. Thursday's world(s) is/are charmingly daffy, teeming with hilariously dastardly villains, madcap old ladies who drive like bats out of hell and intimidate landlords with walking sticks and icy stares, inter-species relations with a small tribe of cloned Neandrathals who have a richly nuanced culture all their own but were sequenced to be incapable of reproducing, office politics and the uniquely troubling difficulties faced by a young woman suddenly thrust into the public eye and also pregnant by a man who never existed. It's heady stuff, and great fun, and I'm in for the long haul with this series.

Thursday? Next!

*Which, get ready for Havisham, who all but steals the novel. As Fforde portrays her extra-novelar (yes I just made that up) life, she reminds me a lot of Diana Trent in the amazing Britcom Waiting For God. If there is ever a film of these, I demand Havisham be played by Stephanie Cole. So, hurry up, film world, if you're gonna. Cole isn't getting any younger.

**Well, mostly. One of the denouements winds up relying on a pretty lame idea that somehow fictional characters can't follow back-and-forth dialogue without dialogue tagging, but I guess I can forgive that. Or at least, I can try.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

John Brunner's THE SHEEP LOOK UP #OneBookAtATime

What a weird combination of eerie prescience and slapstick satire this is, for all that I'm pretty sure it was just supposed to be the latter.

The Sheep Look Up is very much a product of its time, when the Vietnam War was still raging and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was still relatively new and shocking. As such, its view of the rest of the twentieth century -- the author's imagined future, our immediate past -- should come across as dated. There are no cell phones, no internet; computers are still big expensive things on which time must be reserved. But despite all this, the novel feels fresh as ever. Horribly, terrifyingly fresh.

I've read a lot of dystopian lit in the last few years, watched my world die and devolve in dozens of different ways in the (virtual) pages of all kinds of fiction. And some of those books have upset me, yes. But none have just plain scared me as much as this one did.

I finished reading and I had to rush outside and take in a deep gulp of the cold and still mostly clean night air of Cheyenne in January __ I say mostly because, well, there's an oil refinery on the south side of town, and an inversion layer like we've got going on tonight traps all that lovely sour crude smell, but at least I didn't need a filtration mask to breathe. Down in, say, Denver, though (where, incidentally, a lot of the most gruesome action in The Sheep Look Up takes place), well, they do have those smog warnings on some days, and some days I can look south and kind of see it.

The America of The Sheep Look Up is one in which no books like The Sheep Look Up ever got written, or, if they did, paid attention to. It's a grandly collapsing environmental catastrophe of the old school, where the air, water and soil have all been allowed to become so toxic that filtration masks to breathe are just the beginning; the Great Lakes are completely dead, no city's water supply is reliably safe, trace heavy metals and defoliants and pesticides contaminate even the food that is supposedly safe and organic and sold at a premium, and still the profit motive is king; even providers of global food aid expect to make a buck off it, to say nothing of those who are only too happy to get rich providing filtration masks and allegedly clean food and water purification devices.

The madness is presided over by a recently elected jackwagon of a President of the United States who is half Ronald Reagan and half George W. Bush (with a dash of Ferris F. Fremont thrown in), cavalier and clueless but quick to give the press a tough-talking John Wayne soundbite that puts all those America-hating traitors who think they should still be able to see the sun and the moon in the sky in their places. President Prexy is still hell bent on exporting the American Way of Life, by force if necessary, and seems all but unopposed in his military adventurism and his willingness to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Almost. Enter Austin Train, academic and agitator, a spiritual son of Ralph Nader whose message was even less well-received than Nader's had been at the time of this writing (1972), and who finally had a bit of a nervous breakdown and disappeared. Only wait, some people were listening, and in his name have formed a movement that some readers see as predicting the Occupiers of today. Even more marginalized than our Occupiers, though, they're all in sort of a holding pattern, struggling just to survive on a continent drowning in toxic waste, sewage and effluent, and barely holding on against drug resistant diseases, parasities, birth defects, chronic environmental disease and malnutrition. A lot of them seem barely able to hold a coherent thought in their heads; all of them are hoping that Train will come back and show them what to do.

Brunner conveys all of this in a very post-modern style, presenting us with a series of vignettes of different characters coping with this toilet of a world in different places intercut with snatches of mass media chatter that give the small, sad stories of his characters great depth and context. We get stories from both sides of the barricades, profiteers and agitators for a better world (or at least for an end to the madness, since this America may well be past the point of no return, environmentally). The plot that ties it all together is almost a whodunnit, but of course we know who did it.

Never before in life have I been so grateful to live in a world where the voices crying out against pollution and waste have not been totally marginalized. But lest I get too comfortable -- I read this book on an e-reader, that was manufactured using a pollution-intensive process, on another continent. The United States might not now, thanks to the culture of warning and concern of which novels like The Sheep Look Up have been a vital part, become the toilet this novel depicts, but that doesn't mean other places won't. There's a reason so many of our manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and that reason is the flight by pollution-causing industry to countries who don't have even our still rather lame environmental (and occupational) standards. We're still treating the planet as a toilet. We're just keeping our own bathrooms clean.

For now.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Margaret Atwood's ORYX AND CRAKE #OneBookAtATime

Idiocracy meets Twelve Monkeys meets The Elementary Particles. That would be my elevator pitch for Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood's bleakly lovely double-dystopia.

Double dystopia? Why, yes, for Atwood is nothing if not economical as she spins out a dual narrative of the life and times of one Jimmy, later known as Snowman, the last known surviving member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. From the reader's perspective, Jimmy merely exchanges one dystopia for another; the world he remembers and regrets is a corporatist nightmare in which each suburb is a wholly-owned corporate "Compound" -- a gated community with fierce, even lethal security, private education, private everything -- and the rest of the world, the cities and the rural areas, are simply "pleebland", where the ignorant customers live as best they can. One can easily picture those pleeblanders lining up in the morning for their gentleman's latte, but of course we never get to see them until the very end of Oryx and Crake. They are merely faceless victims of the Crakepocalypse.

Crake (just a code-name, after an extinct-in-the-novel/rare-in-real-life Australian bird*) is Jimmy's best friend, a misanthropic scientific genius who rises to be king of the lab even as Jimmy, not so numerate, not so scientific, sinks to a job in the PR industry, the last refuge of the liberal arts being the writing of copy to advertise the products of the Compounds' geniuses. The story of their friendship is a little bland, but that's part of the point; Jimmy's and Crake's world does not value human connection, and so the pair grow up barely knowing what it is, until Oryx comes along relatively late in the narrative. Oryx is a beautiful, possibly Asian, girl, a survivor of various sex trade horrors, whom Crake more or less rescues from his life and puts to work as a teacher for his very special creation: nothing more and nothing less than a replacement for human beings.

The post-apocalyptic narrative zeroes in on these replacements as observed by Jimmy (the Compound life is told in flashbacks), the only ordinary human left alive that anyone knows of, who has let himself be manipulated into serving as guardian and caretaker of the "Crakers", a new species of human that eats like rabbits, lives for exactly 30 like Edenic noble savages straight out of Rousseau, mates like baboons, and has been taught, mostly by Jimmy, whom they call Snowman though none of them has ever seen snow, to revere Crake as their creator and Oryx as the goddess of all animal and plant life.

As a relatively simple but still-tense (the Crakers aren't the only genetically engineered new species amuck in the world, after all. There be monsters in their paradise) supply-run plot unfolds and sends Jimmy traipsing through the world of the Talking Heads' "Nothing But Flowers" back to the remains of the Compound from which the Crakers came, Jimmy/Snowman's flashbacks tell us how the Crakers came to be the new dominant species -- and it ain't pretty. For Crake was all but a supervillain, so angry at humanity for what it had done to the world that he hatched and implemented a truly sinister plot against it. Yes, this apocalypse is all the deliberate work of one man, whose girlfriend and best friend were too busy getting it on behind his back to notice what he was up to until it was too late.

Romantic sort of subplot aside, if you're a reader who needs strong characters to get you through a story, this might be tough going for you. Jimmy is a stock hero-victim of a kind Atwood uses a lot -- her point of view characters tend to the passive, the disbelieving, the innocent only because deliberately ignorant. Crake is similarly one-dimensional, and as for Oryx, she is barely there, and when she is, she is elusive to the point of annoyance. But what is lacked in character is made up for in other ways; Atwood manages (in, as ever, delicately glorious prose) to keep the faceless billions who stand to suffer if/when Crake succeeds ever in the reader's thoughts, and her main trio's bland opacity gives the story the feeling of archetype and mythology, as if we, too, are getting the filtered and sanitized and misremembered version of events the Crakers might have, if Jimmy had been more honest and deliberate with them. There is, perhaps, a wry commentary on the importance of the liberal arts buried here, as Jimmy gets the last laugh, to a degree. It's a pity that by novel's end, one wants to slap him.

This looks to be at least a trilogy before Atwood is done. I have The Year of the Flood on deck for a future read, and a third MaddAddam book is due out this fall. I'm in.

*This novel is very big on extinction, here treated via a videogame released by an entity calling itself "MaddAddam" that is pretty much an early rehearsal of what Crake is going to do to the world.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

China Mieville's RAILSEA #OneBookAtATime

Last year I discovered a very, very strange film and fell completely in love with it. Richard Lester's film adaptation of Spike Milligan's and John Antrobus' post-apocalyptic farce The Bed-Sitting Room is one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen, and I'm a David Lynch/Peter Greenaway/Spike Jonze fan.

The film, like so many I take to my heart, tanked at the box office, but it had a few fans nonetheless.

I am 100% not surprised that China Mieville is one of them.

Railsea is a book I've had sitting on my ereader for many, many months. Mieville is one of my very favorite writers; I love his daring, his baroque and slightly deranged prose style, and most of all, his imagination. He is therefore an author on the very short list of "writers whose books I automatically buy sight unseen just because of who wrote them" as they come out (also on the list: Tim Powers, Michael Chabon, Alastair Reynolds... China's in mighty interesting company, there). He's only disappointed me once, so far (Kraken). But this time, this time I hesitated. Because the first thing I heard about it (beyond that it had to do with trains, duh) was that it was China Mieville's take on Herman Melville's (hee) Moby-Dick. Which I did not love, you guys, not one little bit.

But sooner or later, my love for China Mieville was gonna win out over my hate for his pseudo-namesake (or at least, for his big bloated hipster-before-there-were-hipsters-that-makes-it-even-more-hipster opus). And here we are.

What, you may be asking, has any of this to do with The Bed Sitting Room? Well, just hold on a moment, I'll get to that.* Because first, a sketch of the world China has taken us to, which is, as ever, fascinating. For one thing, it is covered in railroad tracks. Covered. There's never just one set.** And where there is not track, there is either "hard ground" where Mad Max-esque towns and other facilities, built largely out of materials salvaged from the ruins of the world you and I know, are set (and regarded as continents or islands), or regular ground, which is the domain of a host of monstrous soil dwellers -- giant earthworms with girths comparable to human arms, burrowing owls the size of rocs (they can carry off train cars when they bother to fly), antlions as big as a person (or bigger), huge swarms of naked mole rats, and moles ranging from the size we know in garden and farm to those of sperm whales. And like whales, these giant moles are hunted by humans, who chase them down in great mole-trains from which they dispatch jolly-carts (like jolly boats from an ocean whaler) full of harpooneers and other specialists in killing and butchering the giant mole when one surfaces.

And yes, there is an albino giant, called Mocker-Jack. And yes, Mocker-Jack has an obsessed captain hunting it, one Ms. Abacat Naphi (anagram for Captain Ahab***), who sports a crazy semi-cybernetic arm made of metal and mole-bone ivory.

But this is not just a retelling of Moby-Dick with moles and trains****, though yes, we have an Ishmael-esque point of view character, Sham Yes ap Soorpan (but thank god, he's not a mole-ing fanboy who oppresses us chapter after chapter with his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the profession; indeed, he's rather reluctant to be a moler; he'd rather be a salvager, an Indiana Jones fantasy of finding treasure in the train wrecks out on the railsea). There is a lot more going on. Because this is some kind of post-apocalypse, though it's hard to determine in what way our civilization devolved and deranged itself into this one.

Which brings me to The Bed Sitting Room. To which there are at least two in-your-ribs references and lots of more subtle ones. I was already thinking vaguely of this film as I read, but treating the experience as one of those idiosyncratic brain-twitches I sometimes get when I make a connection that probably doesn't really exist. But then, wait, ho! Two of these characters are the children of a mother named Ethel Shroake (in TBS, Shroake is the charwoman to the Queen of England and, upon surviving the "nuclear misunderstanding" that touches off the film/play, is regarded as the closest thing the shattered realm has left to royalty), and they live in a compound dominated by a great archway made of washing machines, a visual echo of the archway under which we meet Ethel Shroak in TBS. I died, you guys.

Another delight to be had in Railsea is an ongoing game Mieville plays with the reader, a coy sort of teasing in which he pretends, in his little trainsplaining interludes between narrative chapters, to be giving us a look at the workings backstage, as it were. He pretends to show us his inner processes, his wrestling with the story, or stories, for he claims there is a story he wants to tell and a story that wants to be told, and they are not precisely the same story. Thus once the story breaks into three narrative possibilities (like a train coming to a switchyard where three tracks present themselves as options), we could follow Sham's adventures, or Naphi's, or the Shroakes', and our narrator appears to struggle with the tension between what he pretends to think his readers expect and what he knows is actually the most interesting bit going on. It's all very droll.

The book is also illustrated by Mieville himself, with drawings of many of the monsters of the railsea appearing between sections of the story. The artwork is admirable and charming, even in e-ink, and leads me to wonder if there is anything this guy can't do. I'd hate him if I didn't love him so.

*You who have read Railsea, you see what I did there?

**No indeed. There are LOTS of sets, sometimes running in parallel, often criss-crossing and looping back and all over the place, like an ampersand (which is, Mieville explains in one of his trainsplaining interludes, is why this world never spells out the word "and" but always uses the ampersand, and why he has chosen to as well. Surprisingly, this is not annoying). Thus the switcher crews on any train are kept very busy indeed.

***I found at least one other anagram, the god called That Apt Omh, which unscrambles to, of course, Topham Hatt, of Thomas the Tank Engine fame. I suspect there are many, many more. But I suck at anagrams. You should be very impressed that I found these two.

****Indeed, the Moby-Dick plot takes a backseat most of the novel, except in that it seems to have informed a whole culture: the railsea is full of train-captains who are obsessively hunting monsters of various species, for various reasons. Each captain has created a metaphor-burdened narrative that is really just an elaborate excuse for taking on the role of obsessive hunter, which they call "having a philosophy." Thus various monsters are stand-ins for various high-falutin' concepts like doubt and remorse and, yes, vengeance, but really, everybody just wants to play Ahab. Which is hilarious.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Ned Beauman's BOXER, BEETLE #OneBookAtATime

Nazis! Nazi memorabilia collectors! Boxers! Boxing promoters! Insects! Entomologists! Sufferers of trimethylaminuria! People who have to work with and smell them!The ecosystem of Ned Beauman's Boxer, Beetle is complicated and repulsive, but wound up not being quite as compelling as other reviewers have made it sound.

The novel intertwines two narratives and two timelines in the now-classic format of a historical narrative being chased down by a modern explorer. In the 21st century, we have a young man named Fishy (so named for his unfortunate, genetically-determined body chemistry and the odors it produces), who conducts internet auctions of historical artifacts at his day job, and has a special sideline in the Nazi memorabilia trade for a hobby, and whose latest mysterious pursuit (alongside a nasty gun-toting freelancer who is killing his way to a new find) leads him to start exploring the story of a British entomologist, fascist and eugenics enthusiast and the diminutive Jewish boxer whom the entomologist manipulates into becoming the subject of some, err, special research in 1936.

Trimethylaminuria is neither played up for laughs (something I was kind of expecting-with-a-cringe from the novel's earliest pages) nor presented as a subject for our compassion or pity (though in real life lots of sufferers wind up committing suicide as a result of the social isolation it tends to impose, the Gordon Crisps of the world aside) as it stands in, in the modern timeline, for all of the things about humanity eugenicists want to eliminate (in 1936, of course, they're much more blatant and reprehensible about it). For Fishy it's just a fact in his life, albeit one that has dealt him out of the reproductive sweepstakes far more effectively than anything the eugenicists of yesteryear would have dared to dream of. He's got bigger concerns as the novel unfolds, like surviving and escaping from his weird captor. Or so it would seem as the novel gets going, but then Fishy and the gunman disappear except for quick and pointless interludes. Fishy's disorder winds up being kind of a punchline for the novel, but otherwise, there really isn't much point to his being in it. Which is a shame.

Meanwhile, Philip Erskine's story (1936) is a study in multiform ickiness, not because he specializes in  carrion-eating/carnivorous insects,  but because of his and his family's matter-of-fact fascism and anti-semetism and, while we're at it, classism. For Erskine is a character straight out of Michel Houellebecq, that French novelist I so love to hate and hate to love. Amid all of his other passions and pretenses are little observations like this one, made while he tries to address the difficult problem of how to masturbate when sharing a cabin and a bed with a professional colleague: "Why couldn't one just go to the doctor every month to have one's semen, this irrational fluid, syringed off like the pus from a boil."

This long before he is shown regarding a semen sample demanded from his boxer specimen as "ootheca", a term usually reserved for the egg case of members of that insect family that contains mantises and cockroaches, thus demonstrating just how human he thinks Seth Roach isn't (and lest one think Roach is by any stretch of the imagination a sympathetic figure or victim, he's just biding his time until he can go out again and get rip-roaring drunk and beat the crap out of whatever "toff" is foolish enough to take him home. There's rough sex, and there's what Roach does. Yikes.).

So, like Arslan before it in my reading this year, this is a fairly repellent and ugly book, but this time unredeemed by beautiful prose. Beauman takes great, gleeful pleasure in giving us a close look at some of the greatest ugliness humanity has ever produced, and at the people who allowed it to flourish largely because they were happy to admire it from a distance. Erskine, for instance, is, in addition to all the other icky things he is, such a fan of Adolf Hitler's that he goes so far as to breed a stronger, nastier, more belligerent strain of an eyeless beetle he originally discovered in a cave in the Poland the Fuhrer is soon to invade, all so that there might be an insect worthy of being named after his hero.

And then there's the boxer, all four foot eleven of him, nine-toed Seth Roach, descended from immigrants chased away by pogroms from the environs of the cave where Erskine found his breeding stock, the kind of gay man who embraces the idea that his preferences are considered perversions and who not only lets himself get roped into being Erskine's study subject, but into coming along to a fateful conference that is supposed to be about artificial languages (think Esperanto, only weirder and more fiddly) but winds up being something rather more vile.

But hey, sometimes, at least, Boxer, Beetle is funny, as when we come, midway through the book, to a description of Erskine's ancestral home, which his father had determined to modernize so thoroughly that it would still be modern in a hundred years. Rube Goldberg isn't in it. I could have maybe used more of this kind of thing for my tour through the slime -- especially in a novel that is promoted as "hilarious." Had I been looking for belly laughs instead of bugs, I might have been annoyed at the paucity of the former (as it was, I could have used more of the latter, but that's what Daniel Evan Weiss' debut was for. And Tyler Knox's for that matter). As it stands, well, this is the first novel of a young man of undoubted talent but who maybe bit off a bit much for his first project. His second, The Teleportation Accident, was long-listed for the Man Booker this year, and sounds interesting enough for me to give it another chance, but on the strength of the subject matter more than of his writing as I've seen it so far.

Anyway, it doesn't sound like it's quite as filthy.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

M.J. Engh's ARSLAN #OneBookAtATime

Man, am I starting off the new year with a brain-bang! I came across M.J. Engh's Arslan via a Google Plus discussion of New Scientist's curated list of "Brilliant SF Books that Got Away".* Arslan was not one of them, but my friend and fellow Wyoming sci-fi aficionado Walter Hawn** suggested that it should have been, and he's yet to steer me wrong, has Walter.

And, well, he still hasn't!

Caveat lector, though: this book should maybe come with a trigger warning, because the first public act of the titular warlord of this tale (I'll get to him in a moment) is the rape of two schoolchildren in the full view of his army and at least one of the children's conquered parents. I would urge those of you who will find this hard to handle to just soldier through it, though, because avoiding or putting this book aside just because of this scene, which is over very quickly and is barely described -- a quick rip off of a band-aid -- would really be a shame, because this is an amazing, amazing, book. And it's vital to the plot, that rape, almost as much, say, as the one that really starts events moving in The Jewel in the Crown (though that one spawns not one but four novels, the famous Raj Quartet). For the act snowballs in unexpected ways.

Arslan himself is a modern day Tamerlane, a Turkic warlord who takes over the world with a single gunshot but then has to travel it, more or less constantly, to consolidate his control and put in motion his plan for the planet, of which conquering it is only step one. What is step two, you might ask? Well, it involves undoing the industrial revolution (the information revolution had not yet taken place when the novel was written in 1976) and bringing the entire human race back to its agrarian village roots. As for step three... no, no, it is neither a question mark nor profit.

The narrative unfolds through Arslan's extended visits to a small farming town in Illinois, and is related by two very different characters: the principle of the primary school Arslan seizes when he and his army first come to town, and one of the two children Arslan publicly rapes his first night in town. The former, Franklin Bond, a humorlessly old-fashioned midwestern hardass whom you can just tell was a church deacon, maybe the Rotary Club president, is the only person in town whose authority Arslan will recognize (we learn he's had ample experience with elected officials), who tells the first half of the story in a stern and angry voice as he describes high school girls rounded up to serve as courtesans, dissenters publicly shot, mechanized farm equipment and electronics and herbicides and pesticides confiscated and destroyed, with Arslan living as a permanent and unwecome guest in the principal's own home. The latter... ah, the latter.

"First the rape, then the seduction," the unrepentant pederast Arslan says, explaining his strategy for molding the 13-year-old Hunt Morgan into his number one companion. He keeps Hunt around as a bed companion, sure, but also presses the boy into service as his reader. Having always sensed that his education was less than adequate, Arslan wants to learn everything. But he doesn't want to read it himself, so Hunt spends most of every evening reading aloud from everything from Greek and Roman classics to engineering texts to Paradise Lost. Which is to say that, in the process, Hunt becomes as autodidactically awesome as Arslan himself, and discovers in his reading that he is changing Arslan as much as Arslan is changing him, which is, in the end, even more seductive than Arslan's campaign to overawe the boy with his power and charisma -- and let him bask in the sheer presence of the guy whose presence overwhelmed world leaders. Watching Hunt's transformation from a bitter and helpless victim into a devotee/henchman who comes to view as a rival the nine-year-old girl Arslan takes up when Hunt gets too old for him is weird and disturbing, but always utterly convincing, as is his narrative voice, a ravishing and very convincing rendering of an autodidact's thought processes and associations that is often surprising in its loveliness, even when it's put to the service of rhapsodizing Hunt's systematized brutalization.

Interestingly and effectively, the book does not reveal how Arslan conquered the world until this second half, after we've spent a good dozen chapters dealing with the fait accompli of his triumph. Franklin Bond, in rural Illinois, is too busy dealing with consequences to spare much thought for how this could possibly be; it is left to Hunt with his agonizingly complex mix of emotions toward the warlord to explain how all this came to pass -- and by that time, the reader is so invested in Franklin's results narrative, in all its ugly, nihilistic glory, that Hunt's cause narrative of Arslan remaking the human world is utterly plausible. "I saw how Arslan with his square-nailed fingers worked at it, stretching and cutting and piecing and smoothing, so that someday, the scraps discarded, the web should fit neatly over every painted continent."

If I'm making this sound like a difficult book to take, well, good. And I'm not even giving away the whole disturbing enchilada. A lot of dystopian fiction is really pleasure-reading escapism; as I've talked about elsewhere, we read that kind of stuff to enjoy vicariously the idea of ourselves as survivors, as plucky rebels, as the lucky few. Arslan is not that kind of book. While its premise sounds a bit preposterous (though, I would argue, less so now than when it was written), it will convince you of its possibility, and then convince you of its inevitability. It might destroy your hope.

But all that, all that is evidence of a job very, very well done. And Engh didn't have to resort to sentence fragment gimmickry to do it either. Cormac McCarthy, I'm looking at you.

*I'm pretty sure I'm going to read all of these this  year, or at least all of them that are available as ebooks, because they all sound amazevaries, you guys.

**Who also takes a mean eyeabetes-inducing photograph.

***Curiously, that appalling first rape scene features Arslan taking a girl first and then a boy, but the girl completely disappears from the story. I'm not sure what point Engh was making thereby.