Review: White Trash

October 21st, 2023

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash traces American society’s relationship to the poor back to colonial times. She does a great job digging into both the details and long arcs of how America has always been stratified and how that reflects on the folks in each stratum. It’s interesting and important to understand, but I didn’t come away surprised.

It’s well written and well documented. A fine history of an underdocumented angle on American history.

Review: Autonomous

July 30th, 2023

I’ve been on a run of reading SF that I really like. The latest is Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous. This is a book I could comfortably call a thriller, but it shifts its shape and focus throughout. I could also say its using a imaginary technology to examine ideas of consciousness and intelligence and how those are manipulated, or that it’s a using a dystopian near future world to comment on freedom and duty. It’s all of those at once, and Newitz does a remarkable job keeping all those balls in the air.

Some authors use genre fiction to sugar-coat disruptive ideas in a way that some readers see them and some don’t. Newitz isn’t doing that. The book keeps all its themes in focus throughout, but each of them gets their time at the forefront. If you want to read a thriller about drug pirates vs enforcement agents and not think about the nature of corporate capitalism and personal freedom, you’re going to wind up wanting to skip some chapters.

But, see, here’s the problem with that plan. The thriller is still going on and the characters are still living. When the more philosophical ideas are and front and center they’re not alone, just the most well-lit. You can’t skip the chapter where implications about how incentives and addiction blur in academia and corporate life are front and center because it’s also moving the thriller plot and the character development forward as an integrated whole. Not a lot is happening in the side channel, but what is happening there is crucial.

There’s an argument that Autonomous is about multitasking and is telling by showing. But there’s no shortage of takes on about what this book is about. It covers a lot of thematic ground with elan. If that weren’t enough it’s got a jaw-dropping rate of tossing out provocative ideas both central and tangential to the plot. And the world.

In addition to being so structurally sound, their prose is phenomenal. There are many turns of phrase I’ll be keeping. Newitz consistently lights a fuse in one place that bursts into a laugh-out-loud joke or emotional chord a hundred pages later.

A must.

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

July 15th, 2023

I think is one of the best novellas I’ve read, but I also think it’s got a long fuse. I enjoyed reading it and I’ve continued to marvel at how revolutionary and well written it is. If one doesn’t think deeply about it, I can imagine this being a neat, quick SF read. Kind of like what I thought of The Plot – and I liked The Plot. I definitely think it’s worth the time to chew on this book. Becky Chambers doesn’t need my kudos, what with the Hugo and all, but I was quite blown away as the fuse went off.

If you want the joy of discovering the book yourself, stop reading here. I don’t have any plot spoilers in here, but I am going to talk about other aspects of the work that I think might be more fun to discover unprompted.

As I say, when I first read this it felt enjoyable and low stakes. The setting and characters were charming, there was a quest to go on, a sudden unexpected first contact between civilizations separated for an age (the sentient robots humans built and the humans). The sort of SF tropes you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic SF novella. But, like I say, low stakes: personal rather than galactic. Engaging. Fun.

But the cover mentioned a Hugo. And I had this nagging feeling that something was going on that I was missing. So I ruminated. And then the penny dropped.

This is a post-apocalyptic SF novella in which the concept of violence between sentients is completely absent. It’s not just that there is no fighting. The concept of violence never occurs to the protagonist nor is there any indication it occurs to the robot they encounter. No threats. Not even a violent metaphor or joshing punch on the arm. If these societies know that sentients can be violent with one another, I’m guessing it would be the kind of taboo that would excite fundamental revulsion. And at this point I have to guess.

Once I realized that, I thought about how fundamental violence or the threat thereof is to SF and other genre fiction. I cannot think of another SF story in which the idea of violence is completely absent. Just to make that point more strongly, it took me quite some time to characterize the revulsion in the previous paragraph in some way that captured its scope without using a violent word, and I’m not writing genre fiction.

SF invites writers and readers to consider a world fundamentally different than our own and see what that says about ours. This is a big swing at world building.

Before I read this, I would have assumed that you couldn’t write an engaging work without reference to violence committed by sentients. But, I read this and didn’t notice the absence until I ruminated. It is a huge challenge to set for yourself as a writer. That Chambers succeeded gobsmacks me.

The more I’ve thought about it – and I can’t stop thinking about it – the more fundamental ideas are woven in here. Those ideas are all slipped in quietly. But once I see a fuse, I know they light firecracker strings as well as single bombs.

There is more to come in this series (OK, it’s out but I’m slow) and I’m all in. But just chewing on this is well worth it.

A must.

Review: Our Missing Hearts

July 11th, 2023

I have not been able to put Our Missing Hearts in a category. Every time I pick it up and turn it around in my mind, I see a different facet that makes me think of it in a new way that leaves the other interpretations valid. Celeste Ng has crafted a work that holds multitudes and feels tight.

The blurb for the book that I’d roll out to get someone to read it is “In a dystopian near-future a tween receives a cryptic message from his mother who he hasn’t seen in years that spurs him to dangerous action.” Pretty much every word in that sentence has a page of explanation by the end of the book, though.

The dystopian aspects are real, but the people in it are equally real. Lots of dystopian fiction is pollyanna-ish in offering solutions or pedantic in sealing society’s doom. Out Missing Hearts strikes a remarkable balance of showing how people create and resist oppressive states. Understanding how everyone is motivated here doesn’t lighten the load of the dystopia entirely, but it also underscores how decency and compassion are equally inevitable.

Hearts is also very concerned with stories and lore. The stories we tell one another or ourselves. The stories that the powerful tell the ruled. How those stories pass through time. It’s no surprise that librarians are big players.

Ng also walks the walk of storytelling. Her writing is perfectly tuned to what I think she’s trying to do. I often collect memorable passages when I read, but I found the writing here all cohered into a whole. There were lots of excellent phrases and passages, but all of them were part and parcel of the story in ways that removing them diminished their power.

She also seems to take delight in changing the tone and content of story she is telling. If a parent were to pick up Hearts and read the first 50 pages or so, they could easily mistake this for a YA novel. It is not. But I also like the idea that a child could read their first adult novel because a parent failed to get the whole story.

Front to back an excellent novel with significant depth.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Plot

July 1st, 2023

A friend recommended this mystery to me out of admiration for its premise and execution. I’m the sort of person who rarely reads a mystery for the mystery, but I gave it a look.

Overall, I did like it, but more because I enjoyed watching the clockwork run than that I was swept away. That said, I don’t think I was the intended audience. It’s very much a book about best selling writers. I recognize names on the shelves at the airport, but I don’t follow that world. As a result, I think some of the Easter eggs that were designed to distract readers for whom that’s their bread and butter went by me.

I guess I also don’t buy the McGuffin of the book, either. It’s kind of a riff on Deathtrap. A plot so good that it’s a guaranteed best-seller. Is I mentioned, plot isn’t always what draws me to a book, so the idea that there was one that great didn’t resonate with me. That said, McGuffins are McGuffins for a reason: to get the plot moving. And it does that.

I don’t want to undersell the quality of the plot or the writing. It is a solid mystery, with twists and turns and blind alleys. The writing makes it all whir and chime pleasantly. And I admire that Korelitz doesn’t chicken out at the end and go for the Hollywood ending. It all makes for a fun read.

Review: High Weirdness

June 24th, 2023

I heard the author, Erik Davis, interviewed on Desert Oracle Radio and realized I’d want to read this if I ever saw a copy. The Los Angeles Public Library eventually acquired an electronic copy, and away we go.

Now the question becomes, “does anyone else need to read this?” That’s seems like a thornier proposition. High Weirdness is a scholarly look at some of the writings and experiences of the McKenna brothers, Robert Anton Wilson, and Phillip K. Dick. Davis is approaching these from a position somewhere between curious skeptic, literary critic, and biographer. To me it looks like he’s trying to explore the way these outsiders expressed themselves in the middle of turbulent lives. There’s a lot of mysticism, black humor, and recreational chemistry involved that leads the subjects of Weirdness to produce the kind of off kilter writing that seems to hint at a universe run by divinities with unknowable senses of humor. I’m consistently amazed by the sorts of belief systems people use to navigate the world and enjoy thinking too hard about trivialities, so I quite enjoyed this.

But back to the question of anyone else enjoying it. If you’d plow through a well-footnoted tome and get a chuckle out of discovering that the author cited work that seems to constrain the founding of Discordianism to one of two bowling alleys in Whittier, I’d have a look at this. That’s a small set of people.

Review: Interior States

June 24th, 2023

I generally enjoy this sort of collection of short contemporary essays. They can give you a snapshot of a time and a writer. The writer of these, Meghan O’Gieblyn, tries to give a sense of place as well, but I feel like she’s hampered by these being published in mostly larger East Coast publications.

When she is taking her readers to a place, it’s generally the upper midwest, a place I have some experience with and affection for. I liked her views of the places and found her perspective as a person returning to them interesting.

Other essays are primarily about issues of the day. She wisely selected essays about the kinds of issues where the details change but the themes are constant across times. She approached these with a good mix of heart and head that I generally liked. I lead toward the head myself, but some of these felt a bit removed.

Her writing is always clear and often evocative, but I was never knocked back in my chair. Again, a reasonable tone for essays about Internal States.

Review: Holy Fire

April 16th, 2023

I’m charmed by the idea of a reader coming to Holy Fire and experiencing the reverse of my encounter with Portrait of a Thief. You could imagine coming on Holy Fire expecting a SF actioner and being surprised to have hit a more literary meditation on art and immortality.

That’s too tight a box to fit the work into, though. Bruce Sterling has a way of shifting tone easily. He’s also never only looking at the surface of an idea, even when he’s cracking wise. He’s got “ha-ha only serious” down to an art form.

Holy Fire‘s plot centers on an old woman in a near-future world where life extension has become a societal priority and success. For some. Our protagonist has a couple moments that shake her perception of her place in the world and throws herself onto a new path.

Her old path was that of a conventional professional who has played by the rules and is having a long life. Her new path is a young person trying to find her place in the world. How that’s possible does the job of getting the reader into the world Sterling’s built.

That world is plausible enough that I bought it, but I suspect there are places where hard SF folks will question the math. I kept my eye on the characters and quite enjoyed how they lit up themes. I suspect this is a book that folks at least in their 40s will directly resonate with, but who can tell? I can only see from where I am.

There were twists and turns, interesting characters, intrigue and thoughts on immortality in here. And I quite like Sterling’s prose as a rule.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: California Crackup

March 18th, 2023

This is kind of a bad book review; I get wrapped around the axle of the authors’ political suggestions, so don’t expect a lot of writing discussion.

I forget how this came to my attention, but I know I was looking for a history of how California’s ballot propositions evolved. I should have paid more attention to Matthews’s and Paul’s subtitle: “How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.” I saw it, but somehow was hoping I could focus on the history and keep an open mind for the fix. I didn’t do a very good job.

I did learn some history and some detail of how the current state of California state government. There are clear details and valid criticisms in the “How Reform Broke the Golden State” part. I did come back knowing more, but I still could use some more context.

The fix isn’t anything special to me. Even to a non-expert it seems kind of academically reasonable. Modify the voting system to produce a more balanced unicameral legislature that focuses on governing. And I grok the game theoretical benefits of the voting scheme that Matthews and Paul like. It’s a sound scheme and I understand it’s in use.

My skepticism comes from two fronts. First, any systemic solution is just a new set of rules to be gamed. It will work until someone does the work to exploit its attack surface. Secondly, a wholesale change like a new voting system seems like a non-starter to me. You’ve got to convince the folks who have secured power under the old system that they can do better under the new one. Since the selling point is to change that balance, it’s a tough sell. We can’t even seem agree on how to redistrict.

I would like to see a bunch more voting districts. It stuns me that the most populous county in the nation has 5 legislators. To me, the possibility that we’ve elected 5 people who can each balance the concerns of nearly 2 million constituents apiece is ludicrous on its face. So I’m even sympathetic to the idea. But if you’re one of the 5 people controlling 30 billion dollars, it’s tough to imagine letting go. Imaging a whole house of the state legislature going quietly into that good night is similarly unconvincing.

As a book, it’s a good description of what they think. I just disagree.

Review: Portrait of a Thief

March 18th, 2023

Grace Li fooled me. Looking at the book jacket and hearing the basic plot, I thought this was a literary debut novel about young first generation children of immigrants. That’s what it’s about, but it’s a heist story. And a pretty good one.

When I say it’s not literary, I mean that the characters are less deep than I imagine when I hear that description. Even that’s a not quite right. It’s not Melville literature that needs to be rediscovered years later. It’s Dumas or Dickens literature where people line up for the next installment.

There’s meat in here, but if the choice is between flashy writing, psychological development, or commentary and a zippy thriller, Li picks the second.

Once I got on board, I warmed to the novel pretty well. I can pick nits with the best of them and this isn’t immune. But in the end it was a fun heist movie with a lot of blockbuster vibes that features a lot of engaging protagonists. They represent a lot of folks who don’t get a lot of attention in blockbusters and they’re front and center here.

It’s a fun read.

Strongly Recommended.