Saturday, September 26, 2015

Read It, September 2015, Progress Report 3

It's been a pretty uneventful week-and-a-bit. I have continued to listen to the essay collection Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace, in the car. After the challenge of his review of Wittgenstein's Mistress, it is a bit of a relief to have some lighter essays. I'm currently listening to "Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama," which is especially relevant to me given that I have read a couple of the books he mentions, including The Man Who Knew Infinity: a Life of the Genius Ramanujan. It also really drives home what a polymath Wallace really was. It seems almost unfair. I think I would have liked to meet him.

I also picked up a paperback copy of a Frederik Pohl novel I read a long time ago: Jem. If I recall correctly, an excerpt from Jem was published in Omni magazine around 1979 or so. If I recall correctly, it contained a bit of a sex scene. If I recall correctly, this led 12-year-old me to read the novel.

Thirty-six years later, Jem isn't so great; its gender politics and its geopolitics are pretty dated, but its three science-fictional alien races are still very cool. It's basically a minor thriller with science fiction elements, but it is more space opera than science fiction; the geopolitics could have played out on earth, and the aliens don't seem that integral to the plot. I have to remind myself that it was written a few years after the 1970s oil crisis and so concerns a future where the world is broken into a fuel bloc, a food bloc, and a "people bloc" of countries that export service workers. The prospect of nuclear war is also very much on Pohl's radar in this story. And so this is really a political/military thriller, and one might think of it as fitting vaguely into the military science fiction sub-genre.

The failures of Pohl's science-fictional imagination in this book are almost more interesting than its successes. In this world, tachyon propulsion from orbit makes the most expensive part of space travel the fuel cost of lifting a ship initially into orbit. But there is no concern shown at all to the problems of relativity associated with faster-than-light travel. In this high-tech world, people exploring an alien world transport gasoline-powered planes and boats there, record audio on magnetic tape, and send information on paper or microfiche(!)

The really badly dated parts of Gem center around sexual morality. Post-sexual revolution, pre-HIV, male science fiction writers liked to imagine, and teach impressionable young readers, that we would all soon be living in a sexual utopia where women would use men sexually the same way that men use women, and all would be content with this situation. So we have a protagonist who is a military officer, a West Point graduate, with a highly-placed father, leading the American expedition to Jem. She cheerfully fucks her way along in the world, to get what she wants at any given time. She's not even a serial monogamist; at one point, she has donated an egg to a sperm and egg bank on the alien world Jem, and discovers that the egg was fertilized. She finds herself wondering just who the father might be, because she honestly isn't sure. The women on Jem are, apparently, routinely donating their eggs to use later, perhaps with surrogate mothers. Meanwhile, in the real world, egg extraction is a non-trivial medical procedure, but Pohl is happy to imagine that it will be routine under primitive field-encampment conditions on toxic, hazardous alien planets. I guess it takes a real man to properly trivialize female reproductive biology.

Pohl also introduces a character who is a carping moralist, and we hear her inner monologue of disgust and loathing towards anyone expressing sexual interest in her, or the couples hooking up all around her. Pohl made her a translator who has had the hemispheres of her brain split, to further her career in simultaneous translation. I remember this fascinating concept from reading this book as a child, but back then I didn't really even begin to parse the way Pohl apparently uses her to illustrate sexual hypocrisy. She spends the book casting judgment on other people's sexual mores, but she's literally of two minds about it and hard-wired for hypocrisy -- the half of her brain that does engage in sex outside of marriage apparently literally doesn't, and can't, know what the other half is up to, or at least can't discern the disconnect. She feels perfectly justified in adoring her chosen partner, even when it quickly becomes clear that he does not have any particular passion for or particular interest in her, or sterling character himself. I am not entirely clear what Pohl is getting at here; is he illustrating sexual hypocrisy in order to mock it, to claim that all scolds are hypocrites, or to show her as a tragic figure who would otherwise be virtuous, had she not been damaged in this way? It just does not seem very clear.

As I said, even though they are not very well-integrated with the overall plot, the aliens are interesting. Jem's 3 intelligent alien races are an underground, mole-like race, a surface-dwelling, crab-like race, and an aerial race of gasbags (the characters sometimes refer to them contemptuously as "fartbags. The life on Jem is apparently mildly toxic to humans; they can have a severe allergic reaction to exposure to environmental proteins. Jem's life has a similar sensitivity to earth organisms.

Pohl had a world here where he could have come up with interesting symbiosis between the different intelligent races, and done much more with the contact scenarios and developing significant relationships between human and alien characters. He really doesn't do much of that, though. The human sympathy for the aliens is disturbingly limited; if that is his intentional message, it seems like quite a dark one. By the end of the book the humans are engaging in plantation slavery, and there is some kind of a rant about how this is consensual, but it is impossible to tell whether Pohl is writing a apologia for slavery, or mocking such apologia.

All through the book, the alien races are there to be exploited; in an early scene, a biologist shoots them down and the injured sentient aliens drag themselves around the camp, slowly dying. Humans literally use the "fartbag" balloonists for sexual gratification; it turns out that a mist of aerially-released fartbag sperm, drifting down onto humans, is a combination hallucinogen, euphoric, and aphrodisiac -- so potent, in fact, that it triggers an immediate orgy among the humans present. The release of sperm can be triggered by strobe lights, and so the colonists of Jem begin holding regular dance parties. This makes Jem sort of like Studio 54, I guess, with its a high concentration of drugs and sperm -- again, just what was Pohl intending to portray, or parody, here, and for what reason?

I'm reminded a little bit of John Varley's Titan and also of the aliens of Medea from Medea: Harlan's World, which I believe was also excerpted in Omni magazine, which also led me to that book; I want to pick up a copy of Medea and read it again and see how well those stories have shown up. I'll bet it holds up a lot better than Jem, and I know that Titan certainly does. It seems unfortunate that Pohl's reputation rests on a handful of works that are quite memorable -- for example, Gateway and The Space Merchants, but would be far stronger if not for a lot of mediocre work. To be fair, I have not read more than a selection of his novels, so perhaps I am missing some information. If you're interested in a satirical, polemical space opera, I'd recommend reading Pohl's much earlier book The Age of the Pussyfoot, which is at least light-hearted and often quite funny.

There's more to tell about planet Jem and its unusual star, but really, by the standards of better hard science fiction, it's not that interesting. Oh, and the sex scenes I remember from my childhood? Let's just say they were a lot more exciting when I was twelve. "The future of sex that wasn't" would be a good topic for a con panel on sexuality in science fiction. White male science fiction authors envisioning a post-sexual-revolution world that perfectly preserves, as if in amber, their own attitudes towards the subject? Don't sign me up for this particular future -- although it could inspire a really fun convention costume event!

Meanwhile, I am just about finished with Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is essentially a transcript of a long series of conversations with David Foster Wallace. There are some real insights here. Disturbingly, Wallace's tendency towards suicidal ideation is present as a subtext all through is comments -- he is constantly talking casually, in a joking manner, about blowing his brains out, in a manner that was, at the time, probably just shy of setting off his interlocutor's alarm bells. Reading Wallace talk about his insecurities and painful introspection about all his perceived faults feels voyeuristic, but there is some insight here about all writers, all artists. I feel closer to him as a person than I do when reading his brilliant and often self-revelatory essays. I'm just not quite sure he was really comfortable with what he actually revealed. But his thoughts on media and television and music are more than worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Read It, September 2015, Progress Report 2

I have a line-jumper to report. Somehow, Terry Pratchett's last Discword novel*, Raising Steam, jumped the line and I read it before a number of other books that have been waiting patiently for months. *[Well, last "regular" or "main sequence" Discworld novel; the Tiffany Aching book The Shepherd's Crown is a young adult Discworld novel in the Tiffany Aching sequence and it came out after Raising Steam, so it is, truly, sadly the last Discworld novel]. Raising Steam is about the development of railroads in Discworld. It fits nicely into the Moist Lipwig sequence, but does not really stand out as better or worse than the others. Really, the whole sequence is quite good. It does not do anything special to close off or round out the sequence, and so reading the main sequence of Discworld novels will forever leave readers with a slight feeling of incompleteness. I think that in itself is a tribute to the author; the world, and not just the series of books, will hereafter always have a Terry Pratchett-shaped hole in it.

I've been reading many things this month, including a number of things that aren't books. I read the New Yorker's article on Donald Trump and his relationship to the White Nationalist movement. I picked up some discounted audiobooks on CD at the Book Warehouse in the Birch Run outlet mall, specifically a boxed set of David Sedaris audiobooks, and an unabridged version of the David Foster Wallace essay collection Both Flesh and Not.

Both Flesh and Not opens with the essay "Federer Both Flesh and Not" and I listened to that essay driving down to Ann Arbor on Monday morning. I have very little interest in professional sports of any kind, but DFW makes tennis very interesting, and his enthusiasm for the sport becomes contagious at least as long as I am listening to his analysis. Like all DFW essays, this one is about many things, including the history of tennis, the way we react to and treat athletes, and the way they respond to this attention. Having never really heard of Roger Federer, I had a very strange instance of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or recency illusion. Just an hour or so after I had listened to this essay, I overheard two co-workers talking about Federer. The essay dates from 2006. Apparently, Federer has been enjoying a recent comeback after a number of years of relative obscurity. Wallace's genius is not obscure at all; it's an amazing essay, a real tour de force.

The next essay, Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young, is somewhat more difficult to get through in audiobook format. Wallace starts off discussing the then-recent crop of "conspicuously young" writers and winds up tackling some very heady topics, including the notion of just how contemporary culture manifests and shades a piece of writing, and how recent fiction has been morally damaged by television writing, an inescapable influence for young authors. He also lays into MFA programs, which no doubt deserve the tongue-lashing. When he wrote this, Wallace was about 26 years old. It seems almost inconceivable to me that at 26 he could be so insightful, and so well-read (although at that age somewhat more showily and conspicuously so than he was in later writing). He really was so very, very brilliant.

It is hard to listen to this essay in audio form and I have had to listen to the whole thing repeatedly. I'd like to be able to back up just a few seconds, but my car's CD player will only back up to the beginning of a track (or if it will scan backwards, I don't know how to make it do so). The essay is so dense that if I was reading it in print, I would require frequent breaks to stare into space, think admiringly about the argument he was making, and perhaps Google a few of his references. It's hard to do that while driving.

Now I'm working my way through his long review of Wittgenstein's Mistress and I am at sea here, knowing even less about Wittgenstein than I do about young writers and MFA programs circa 1988. I may not finish reading (listening) to this collection of essays this month, but I am trying. I have also started reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. The multiple introductions are heartbreaking, and I haven't even gotten to the real dialogue yet. I would love to see the movie adaptation, called The End of the Tour. I'd have liked to see that one in the theater, but I don't think it played anywhere within fifty miles of Saginaw, Michigan, so I'll have to buy a DVD when they are available.

Finally, I read half of the most recent long essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic magazine, "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration." I will read the rest, but it is so grim that I had to stop for now. This is another of those essays by Coates which will prompt me to buy paper copies, and give them to my friends. But I had to stop, for now.

I've also been reading bits and pieces of The Art of Electronics, Third Edition by Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill. This is an amazing book, and I understand more of it than I ever would have, a few years ago. I've also been reading chapters from Make: Encyclopedia of Electronic Components Volume 1: Resistors, Capacitors, Inductors, Switches, Encoders, Relays, Transistors by Charles Platt (yes, the same Charles Platt who wrote science fiction, including The Silicon Man I've gotten more deeply into my electronics hobby; at the age of nearly fifty, when I can barely see well enough to solder parts together, I finally have the electronics hobby that my grandfather tried to teach me when I was eight or nine years old. And I am trying to pass his enthusiasm for the subject on to my own children. (No grandchildren yet!)

And so I will stop there. Another update soon!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Read It, September 2015, Progress Report 1

Over Labor Day weekend I read the new Laundry Files novel from Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score.

This one is different in that it is told entirely from the perspective of Mo, Dominique O'Brien. An experienced combat epistemologist (I'll bet your spell checker doesn't include that word), in this story she gets a serious promotion. For those following along with the story arc, Bob now hosts the Eater of Souls and has become a sort of scary successor to Angleton, but Mo is a Deeply Scary Sorceror in her own right, with her own Laundry career. In fact that's been true as far back as the second Laundry Files novel, The Jennifer Morgue. She's not an accessory to Bob, and no one's trophy wife, and does not really work in his shadow. Stross should get some credit for not writing Mo as a weak secondary character. In fact, he jokes a bit about it, having Mo mention the Bechdel Test, when her conversation with another woman happens to turn to Bob.

This is reinforced by the situation at home, where Bob and Mo find, for very good and terrifying reasons, that their work has turned them both into people who are not really certain if it is either safe or comfortable to live with each other. So they are undergoing a sort of hesitant, unwilling trial separation. This has the effect of allowing the narrative to really stick with Mo. To reinforce the idea that this is a story told from a female perspective, we have a "birds coming home to roost" setup, where Mo has to figure out how to work with both Mhari and Ramona. Poor Bob -- for him, it seems like that is a terrifying setup for an urban horror novel!

I'm not going to say that Stross is great at writing a female character -- Mo is no Molly Bloom -- but it's clear Stross worked hard at it, and he's done, I think, a good job. I get the feeling that he isn't quite in Mo's head the way he's in Bob's head, but even so, he writes rings around a lot of other genre authors.

If I had to pick one series from the "urban fantasy" genre to keep and the rest to discard, I wouldn't, because I wouldn't give up Kat Richardson and Jim Dresden or even Simon Green or Thomas Sniegoski. But the Laundry Files books would definitely remain on my short list. When a new one comes out, I actually hesitate to buy it, because I know I will be pretty much unable to do anything else, neglecting work, family, personal hygiene and nutrition, and everything else, until I've finished reading it. So I try to wait until I have a suitable weekend.

This novel is a great addition to the Laundry Files. If this novel had a downside for me, it would be that I miss Bob and his endearing nerdiness. Mo is just not as much of a gadget freak as Bob, and doesn't rattle on at length about the details of the magic and technology that this world mixes together. She has her own things she's nerdy about, especially violin and classical music, but I feel like Stross did not know her subjects well enough to write a lot about them. Or maybe he just had to make cuts for length; this is quite a long Laundry novel.

I would be happy to read another Laundry Files novel told from Mo's perspective. At the end of this novel she's in the same kind of rough shape that Bob was in, at the end of The Jennifer Morgue. But I've known Bob for a lot longer. If his success at saving the world, and his new assignment as host to the Eater of Souls, means he has to lose his wife, well -- I'll be very sad for him. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Bob, are you OK?

I have one last comment on the book. I understand that when a series changes publishers, the graphic design continuity is often lost. But there has been a nice graphic consistency in the Laundry Files novels, particularly the last three, including some nice typographical consistency. This book discards that continuity for some cover art that does feature a violin case, but is largely just vague and ugly. I guess it makes sense given that it has a different narrator, but it probably has more to do with Stross's change of editor at Ace. It's a shame and a disappointment. Take a look at this cover, and this cover, and this one. The other current editions for the Laundry Files novel are sightly less consistent in the way they lay out text blocks on the cover, but they have similar artwork and use the same typeface. Now look at the new one. Not only does it not look like it belongs to the same series, it's ugly. Ace, what the hell were you thinking?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Read It, August 2015

It is Tuesday, the first of September. This morning I stopped at a diner for breakfast and while eating their sad, tasteless version of biscuits and gravy, I finished reading (actually, re-reading) Nature's End by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka. Technically I did not finish this book in August, but I finished it before 9 a.m. the first day in September, so bite me, I'm counting it as an August book.

I could not recall much details of this book, but as I re-read it, I recalled certain scenes and elements that are still vivid thirty years later. The book is a novel, told in multiple first-person narrative. This narrative technique is tricky and risks leaving the reader alienated, as she fails to make the jump each time the narrative voice changes. The writing is technically competent for the most part, but I do feel that the narrative characters are not quite vivid enough to make this technique work well. This is in part because the book is choppy and episodic, broken into very short chapters, so we don't spend enough time with each character to really get to know his or her voice.

The narrative chapters are interspersed with short chapters consisting entirely of clips from news media. The formal innovation here is that the first few are real excerpts (or seemingly real excerpts -- I have not tried looking them up) from news sources, dated pre-1985. Then the sequence of news clippings continues smoothly into extrapolated, fictional news reports on a similar theme: for example, deforestation.

This is moderately convincing even when it is obvious that a cited source is fictional. Of course the difficulty is that in reading this book in 2015, thirty years after it was written, we know that 1985's future did not play out as described in that future passed by. The book's argument is that the forces contributing to "nature's end" would go exponential in their destructive power over that period. While the curves may indeed be exponential and we do indeed have terrifying anthropogenic global warming occurring now, the time window between then and now is probably too small for the curves to really look exponential.

Given that reality these days is plenty terrifying enough this fear-mongering now seems like weak tea. But this doesn't make up the whole of the book. The book is especially good when it becomes less polemical and the authors just put together an engaging showing-not-telling action sequence. There are several of these. They include a description of a life-threatening smog event in Denver, a narrow escape from a massive forest fire in the Brazilian rainforest, the description of a dust storm destroying a farm in Iowa. Put these together with a plot involving a political hit on a demagogue promoting mass suicide, and a somewhat cliched ending involving an Island of Doctor Moreau scenario with altered animals and spiritually uplifted, gifted, altered, damaged children, and you've got a book that is definitely flawed, definitely a product of the "day after" scaremongering of the era that was happening as the cold war wound down, but is still interesting and, maybe, might motivate a reader to study what really happened, and is happening, in both nature and culture.

I'm going to propose that the New York Review Books Classics series adopt this book and bring it back into print, perhaps along with Warday, which I also intend to re-read soon. Flawed though it is, I think it deserves to be read.

I also finished the first Stainless Steel Rat book. It is in fact quite short, and pretty blatantly sets up the sequels. I'll pick up the next one at some point. I don't feel that I need to rush. I enjoyed this book and it is clear that it was very influential on a generation of writers, particularly screenwriters, but the science fiction aspects just haven't worn that well, and I enjoyed Harrison's parody novel Bill, the Galactic Hero more.

I also finished Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. I would have liked to squeeze in another book, but four doesn't seem to bad, even though The Stainless Steel Rat was quite short. My work schedule is easing up a little bit, as we are winding down the process of developing large quantities of new code and in a phase of bug fixes and applying spit and polish to our alpha 2 release. Things will ramp up again for a beta phase, so I can't guarantee I'll be able to read very much in September, but I'll do what I can. A friend loaned me The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edumnd de Waal. I've only read a few pages, but it looks to be a very compelling work of non-fiction. My car is stuffed with more books, begging me to read them. But now, off to work again...