Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi

I never realized it before reading this novel, but what the world needs is a dystopia in the style of Graham Greene, where the sadness, secrecy, danger, ubiquity... the altogether oppressiveness of a failed social effort can be written up as the perfect pot to stew the uneasy moral gristle of the characters.  Greene, of course, had a knack for spotting these tired pockets of the real world, but your better science fiction is all about removing constraints like that, and it has a long history of creating sorry futures as a critique of political ideas.  It'd be a great marriage, is what I'm saying.

The Windup Girl is not that novel, for better or worse, but I will admit that I read a good third of it really wanting it to shape up as a new Quiet American.  The setting works: it's in a future southeast Asia, in a region historically resistant to imperialism, yet eternally dealing with the attempt, simmering with potential coups and clogged up with its own webs of loyalty, history, crime and general hardship.  Generations of resource depletion and biological capitalism have left humanity diseased and dependent, and in the Thailand of the story, have put subsistence living toe to toe with modernity.  We are also introduced early on to a character I wanted to read as a reinvented Alden Pyle.  Similarly named, Anderson Lake is likewise more of an interloper than a proper protagonist, who, along with the boozy expats of his acquaintance, doesn't quite jibe with the culture.  He's in truth a powerful political agent, a fact belied by his willingness to risk himself within the intrigues of Thai society.  He takes a possessive interest in a local woman, and, well, even if that's as far as the similarities go, you can at least see why I was rolling with this.

But the cracks start early.  We're in Lake's mind from the beginning of the book, and it doesn't take long for the his schemes to be revealed, in context, as probably malignant.  Nor is there any allegorical love triangle here.  Emiko may be a trophy object but, well, she's not Thai for one thing (not even Japanese, strictly speaking), and more importantly, she is a challenging individual in her own right.  There is overall too much action, too many characters, and not the right kind of internal space to really qualify as a Greene knockoff.  It's not a tenuously drawn inner balance, this novel, it's the usual point-of-view plot mosaic.

Bacigalupi imagines a world where food sources have been monopolized by a handful of "calorie companies," modern-day Monsantos who have long since succeeded in suppressing local agriculture in exchange for imports or rights to grow non-propagating proprietary strains that the companies sell.  (It's the American Midwest extrapolated to a global hellscape.)  It's not spelled out whether the succession of plagues that have further eradicated old species and leveled the human population were intentionally waged by the calorie companies, or whether they were a result of tempting the world's fate with highly engineered monoculture.  In any case, the political arms of the companies actively seek out what biodiversity is left, with an aim to develop it (no doubt with similar results down the line), and keep the business one step ahead of the next pandemic.  Thailand has made it this far by vicious containment measures, and a rumored pet scientist.  The nation has also maintained an old seed vault in the capital that Anderson Lake wants very much to negotiate. 

The detail of this sorry world is very well drawn out, and the author has really done a good job in fleshing out a location for its conflicts, and selecting characters to witness it from different angles.   This Bangkok seethes with people and squirms under the weight of history.  There is a languor to the city that comes from more than the jungle climate, it's heat, fatalism, decay, a struggle that's more necessary than hopeful. The impact of global scourge and dearth of kilowatt-hours is so effectively shown that I kept noticing the times it was told.  (My only mild complaint about this book is that he uses just a hair more neologisms than I felt were necessary.)

Most things are windup in this world.  The earth has been so poorly used that hand-crank power has become the ubiquitous poor-man's alternative to carbon.  However, Emiko (the girl of the title) isn't throwback tech, she's been made to have jerky toy-like motions.  Emiko is an engineered person, a New Person in the book's language, one who has been bred, altered, and conditioned from birth for a role as a high-end courtesan.  Not just with the creepy doll motions, she's genetically predisposed to obey and please, to seek male guidance, and what the hell, that's three novels in a row (not to mention a tv show) now where subservience is governed by sci-fi technicalities, and although it's gotten under my skin, Emiko's arc is quite satisfying in this story, because this is a girl whose mind has a slim chance of conquering her genetic tendencies.  This far from removed the microcosm for which she's been designed, obedience has treated her poorly.  Abandoned by her old patron and forced into a lesser life of prostitution, in an unsuitable physical environment, she wants safety in Anderson Lake, and that is something her world will also probably not allow. 

A spoiler here, but among the many plot whorls, a new disease has been simmering in Lake's business front, an entirely natural one.  It is managed with the scientific tools at hand, but not before it gets Lake.  Emiko (and new people in general) are resistant to it, and, we gradually learn, often have other strengths, provided the bullshit low-status-signifying mods can be weeded out (or gradually bred out, or can somehow provide into an ecological advantage).  It's heavily suggested that these new organisms are the future of the planet, and our true legacy.  The fact that the disease strain evolved from a natural mutation (i.e., not engineered and as a random element to the plot) is significant, and we're offered a question here about the nature of nature.  Is human meddling an affront against nature or is it an aspect of it?  Most of us prefer the anthropocentric answer, that we're the end result of evolution, and that we have some relationship with the biological world.  But the honest answer is that we're part of the process that has no goal, and in the book, all our activity has been the kind of catastrophe that increases speciation (and the earth's had a few).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

AKA Earned Suspension of Disbelief

Several months ago, I put aside a post about the Daredevil series that had recently aired on Netflix.  I couldn't file it down to the narrow point I wanted to make at the time (and I was also conscious that I have one about the Marvel live-action universe still on the page), but last night, I stayed up binge-watching (as the kids do these days) the followup series, Jessica Jones, and I think I want to work a few things out here. 

Daredevil was the only reason I gave in and got a new Netflix subscription early this year.  On the whole (and like most people), I thought it was fantastic.  There are any number of ways to take on the space-aliens-and-superheroes fare and keep it entertaining--god knows that like 90% of these books I read fall neatly in the sci-fi/fantasy basket--but I've always liked the stories best when they keep a strong connection to known reality.  I think this was as important for the oldest hero stories as it is for the new ones: you can't make anyone larger than life if no one around them is life-sized.  Almost always, the believable angle comes as a plausible approximation of human nature in the response to all the craziness (I always love the sane, marginalized characters who point out just how nuts everything around them is, or who can't help lampshading the plot flaws), but what I'm finding so interesting about Marvel's live-action efforts is how they've been very creative about the places the stories touch ground. 

I don't think Iron Man would have worked nearly as well, for example, without a 20-minute cut of Tony Stark's touch-and-go experimentation.  Something in there got the process of innovation some exaggerated flavor of right.  Shit never works too well at the beginning, even when you're a tech genius.  Agent Carter wasn't in the same league as the Netflix dramas, but it was occasionally very strong, and that one was held to earth by the unexpected tethers of institutional bias.  When I write it like that, it sounds like it's been done before, but it's a very different animal here, and the distinction is important.  Peggy isn't smashing her way through the sexist 1940s and punching oppression-themed villains in the eye (not yet anyway), she is more like a well-realized character who is struggling within a confining peacetime reality. 

Daredevil went on to do a whole bunch of things right in this regard too.  The grounding theme of this show was the human consequences of movie-theater violence.  In a stroke of genius, the aftermath of all the skyscraper toppling in The Avengers reverted New York to an old film-school version its corrupt, shabby self.  (Because for anyone who's been there recently, today's Hell's Kitchen is a world of safe boring storefronts, and modern Times Square looks like some unholy lovechild of Disneyland and Tokyo.)  And of course when the hero can get his ass kicked, get ground down, get laid up as painfully as Matt Murdock did, it makes any of his successes feel earned.  Seriously: Daredevil was a great urban Kung Fu story before anyone got in spitting distance of the red suit.  It would have worked every bit as well if he were just an athletic blind guy--the story didn't really need the "abilities."  I bought wholly in to the first ten episodes, even as syndicates of mystical old ninjas were running through the city, and this viewer didn't bat an eye.  Those places where it gave in to its comic self, that's when it stumbled a little. 

(The other way that Daredevil established its emotional stakes--and this is a strength of Jessica Jones as well--was by giving the characters room to act like believable friends.   To get close to someone as likeable but remote as Matt, you'd have to keep ignoring all of his subtle keep-away vibes, and they found a couple sorts of people who could.  It required some decent acting and direction to communicate it.)

So on to Jessica Jones, a character I was only vaguely aware of through the nerdblogs, who came out 15 years after I gave up on comics.  On TV, she is more obviously powered with enhanced strength and (at least some) resilience, and it's terrifying how all of that power means precisely fuck-all when it comes to the emotional challenges of acting like a hero. 

If Daredevil was about the consequences of violence, Jessica Jones is about the consequences of abuse.  Looking back on the binge, I see it mapped on every character thread, but as before, this is the tether to human realism.  David ("Tenth Doctor") Tennant plays the villain Kilgrave, who can make people obey him, who can make people want to obey him (and what good is super strength against that?).  This is an abuser who is additionally enabled by mindfuck powers (and it's not at all clear which came first), and it's damn interesting how often he resorts to conventional abuse too, because that's the kind of person he is.  It's damn interesting how willing the show is to get right in the head of people like this and develop it as a theme (not just Kilgrave, but a number other male and female characters act abusively as well), treating them with empathy, encouraging the viewer to understand their motives and to weigh their charming apologies, without forgiving a damn thing about what they do, and without ever ceding the agency of the victims.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but Kilgrave starts out as casually menacing, and the show gradually recasts his behavior as obsession, and then as petty obsession.  And the truth is, the Purple Man would be nowhere near as scary if he were bent on world domination, or revenge, or any of the standard supervillain schtick.  Nor is Luke Cage (Jones's lover, and total badass) allowed to ride in as a savior, even though if anything he is more powered than she is.  He understands that this is her demon to overcome, and the wannabe good-guy types who feel it is their job?  The ladies don't even let them drive.  It only sounds like a textbook in hindsight, because it's a character drama before anything else, and they do an good job of keeping it real.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I remember the buzz in the science fiction groups when The Sparrow first came out. It populated almost everyone's best list for awhile (and the ones who didn't love it felt that the acclaim came at the expense of the genre's roots, which is silly enough to make me wonder if I am not in fact misremembering things), and among that crowd, it's not hard to see what the appeal was. The book is genial, lightly philosophical, hard-ish on the science, and tends to be empowering of women, introverts, and technical people. But as a plotted novel, Russell kind of botches the delivery, and I suspect that anyone's enjoyment of it is going to depend an awful lot on what they are reading for (even more than is usually the case).

The story is set in the near future (that is, 1996's near future, which is getting very close to the present), and it's set in motion when an astronomer at the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico picks up an unexpected signal. The politics of the times, the brevity and intermittancy of the message itself, and the protagonists' personal and professional networks, all have plausibly coincided in such a way that the is revelation is confined to a very small team at first, long enough that they can begin the project themselves, under the discreet hand of the Roman Catholic church (Jesuits, so, you know, the good discreet Catholics), before the public really gets wind of it.  The team determines that it's in fact a snippet of an extraterrestial broadcast. Music, Hot Hits from the next star over. Could this be investigated further? Well, the church is genuinely interested, and consider it within the Society's historical context of mission and scholarship.  Our primary character, Father Emilio Sandoz, is a preeminent linguist, and makes a compelling case for a cultural and scientific effort.  Could we actually get there and check it out?  Surprisingly yes: 2019 technology sometimes moves asteroids during mining (chucking mass out the back), and a sealed rock could in fact keep up 1g by doing this for a couple decades.  The team already includes a pilot, an astronomer, and a polymath, and holy shit, this is all really happening. 

The discovery aspects of the book are done pleasantly well.  It reads like sf "competence porn" that for once isn't driven by male ego.  Russell makes a lot out of the collaborative process, doesn't discount luck (enough things have come together that the Catholics, and Emilio particularly, can't help but see it as God's plan), and keeps a group dynamic based on open communication.  So much of the planning and travel--it must be at least half the book--takes place over intelligent dinner party conversations, where people laugh a lot, and reveal themselves over that extra glass of wine.  The individuals are diverse, likeable and interesting enough (Anne Edwards, the middle-aged den mother of the group, appears to be a real Mary Sue character here, the writer herself herding them along), and these kinds of scenes continue even through the voyage to the planet eventually known as Rakhat, where contact with the alien species is first made.

And even if it takes a while to get there, the events on the planet are interesting.  Finally, the long-developed situation starts changing, and it's the best part of the book.  The characters misjudge the nature of Rakhat's intelligent species (who are about as responsible with civilization as humans are, even if they're much better stewards of their planet).  There are two of them, nearly indistinguishable, and of course people always overestimate the Eloi at first.  Russell's understanding of ecological relationships drives the plot here, as well as inevitable cultural ignorance, and it's quite cleverly done. 

It's a perfectly cromulent way to develop the story, but these parts are all told in flashback, and it's explicit from page one that something went terribly wrong on Rakhat.  Emilio Sandoz is the only member of the team to return, and he's disfigured, cynical, sick, and with what little knowledge that's revealed, disgraced.  His illness seems alien or supernatural (it's not, although he's been plenty traumatized), and the investigatory committee is hungry for his side of the story (although they have years worth of reports, and the popular conclusions that they have allowed are fairly ridiculous assumptions--I'll try not to spoil it). 

Sending the mission off the rails and breaking Sandoz's faith would have worked fine as a linear progression, but this extended flashback business was not the right way to manage the contrasts.  In effect, Russell has decided to set up two kinds of novels and make them sit awkwardly side by side.  For a mission that has succeeded on a foundation of open communication within a group, the author is keeping information from the reader here only to delay Emilio's big reveal.  Since none of the church officials we meet really do much to move the plot that way, I didn't really care about any of them, and yet they occupy a substantial chunk of the text.  Russell wants The Sparrow to be a voyage of discovery and a tense character drama at the same time, but in the discovery part, the characters aren't behaving dramatically, and in fact, any sustained personal tension would have been inimical to the kind of story that's working itself out.  Most of them don't even change in any meaningful way.  And the one guy who does have an arc--Sandoz--is also the hardest character for the reader to approach.  He starts off a somewhat enigmatic man--withholding his inner self from others as a sort of self-enforced humility--and keeps this level of remove throughout the story, a trait which grows sort of beatific as his faith deepens.  When he's recovered afterwards, he's closed off for less subtle reasons.  We spend the whole novel revisiting him in his broken state, but it doesn't become meaningful until the end, after all of his relationships are established, and we finally understand what caused it.  Probably Emilio's more genuine opening after the trauma is the point of these sections, but even though it feels good to point him in a direction of recovery or redemption, it's still a tremendous anticlimax, and it would have made a better epilogue than ongoing plot.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler

[This morning, I upended a mug of coffee all over my grandfather's old desk, splashing my computer, a small stack of books, and all of the usual office detritus.  I mean, usually I reserve that sort of thing for work, where I can dramatically imperil valuable documents instead of 1950s scholastic-grade oak.  But apparently I've grown weird about books, and maybe this was nature's way of telling me to write a couple of those up and put them away.]

Fledgling, in 2005, was published just a little bit ahead of the modern wave of attractive, socialized fictional vampires.  It's similar on its face to all the Twilight clones, but unlike most of the selections from the Paranormal Romance section, this one still feels like an innovative concept, turning a traditionally supernatural relationship into an evolutionary one.  (And unlike I imagine those selections to be, this one is very well written.)  The Ina, as they're called in the book, have been on the earth for as long as humans have, existing in symbiosis with select human individuals.  They live longer than us (and believe themselves wiser), have very low birth rates, and are gifted with more intense strength, dexterity, and senses (especially scent), with the attendant animal-like compulsions to feed, breed and sleep, which, as with their sister sapients, they arrange their society to accomodate and govern.  They're light-sensitive, they require human blood for nourishment, and with proper care, they can heal like Wolverine.  So standard vampires, more or less, except with a more compelling backstory, and a more interesting relationship to people.  Their venom is intoxicating--it feels gooood for us humans to let blood--and it creates dependency, basically mood-altering people into a state of loyalty, contentment, and (not counting the addiction) physical health.  The Ina maintain long-term partnerships with their symbionts, ranging from something rationalized as mutual benefit, to the relationship of an ant to an enslaved aphid.

And now enter the protagonist Shori, a pubescent Ina (looks 12, but is in fact in her fifties) who possesses some genetic advantages due to experimental interbreeding.  Notably, she has dark skin that protects her in the daylight, but she's also improved in her Ina-ness compared to the rest of them--faster, stronger, more desirable scent, more intoxicating saliva, an objectively better specimen. 

You will have perhaps noticed that in a few strokes, Butler has transformed an overused fantasy trope into a complicated question of race, power, sexism, sexuality, consent, agency, and morality. 

It's a highly accessible read, too.  In the opening pages of the book, Shori wakens from a near-death injury, without her memory, amid corpses, ashes, ruins.  What happened to her?  What's her place among her kind?  It's a fairly linear (if somewhat episodic) path to answer those questions, and the prose doesn't wander too far off into the philosophical depths, even though Butler's given herself every opportunity to do so.  Shori herself is a sympathetic outsider, and her personal stakes are high enough to keep the plot chugging.  Focusing on the better people of either species, and pushing the really incorrigible brand of racism onto the snooty vampire elite, dodges a lot of the challenge for readers.  (Or at least for white readers--I'd be very curious to know how this book reads from an African-American perspective.) 

But the thing is, this story would have failed without a strong and nuanced understanding of those big themes, and they provoked a strong emotional reaction in me.  I left it disappointed how the adult Ina couldn't avoid the same traps of prejudice and patriarchy that have ruined so much of human history.  I liked Shori, but I couldn't let go of how damn patronizing she was toward her harem, or how her first symbiont was not a willing addition to it, how his intellectual antipathy toward obedience and revulsion at sexualizing a child's body had no chance against Shori's vampiric love juice.  I was affronted by the idea of people as pets, either abused or loved.  I was mad at the Ina for not creating a better society, and then angry, yet again, at my own damn species for the same reason.  It seems like a small novel to contain such big currents, but then, that's what makes it good.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Time's Arrow, by Martin Amis

I don't know how I feel that the cover of my copy of Time's Arrow gave the plot away.  Not because it ruins the story so much--we know that this Tod Friendly character's a creep, nursing some nasty past or other--but I wonder how I would have received it if I hadn't known already that the scale of evil reached all the way up to the Nazi death camps, if the escalation would have startled me (more), or if I would have found a different perspective on a re-read.  (Welp, I guess I also just blew the chance for you to go read it and report back to me.  Sorry about that.)

The conceit is that the narrator, whoever that is exactly, is stuck in Tod's body as a traveler, unable to exert his will on it or to see beyond what Tod sees.  He perceives time going in reverse, only able to guess at the demons in his host's past until he actually gets there.  The narrator opens his eyes and gasps in the man's last decrepit breath, as doctors batter him to sensation on the table.  He painfully retraces his backwards way home, slowly getting more vital as he de-ages.  He retains a forward-thinking sense of cause and effect, and Amis wrings comic irony from any number of vignettes told from that point of view.  Beautiful things are lovingly destroyed, food is masticated into form and returned to the store for money, arguments and hurt feelings are suddenly reconciled with insensitivity or violence, and the toilet and the trash are the benevolent wellsprings and motive forces of humanity.  Sometimes the bits are well-written enough that they almost work in either direction, at which point I had to stop and read them again.  Even for a short book, and even with the humor,** it got tiring.

And it's a pretty well-worn shtick by the time we get to the real horrorshow, where Friendly finds himself with a proper German name, working under some fictionalized Mengele.  He relates Auschwitz as the asshole of the world, and can think of no higher praise.  Here, people are nursed from death to health, often with the urgent intervention of the doctor's own hand, and he soars with the good feeling of it.  After the war, his story devolves to anticlimax, as the narrator fades away from consciousness toward the innocence of infancy.  Amis suggests that Tod's a product of his time, that anyone could be corrupted with his empowerment and influences, but I don't buy it--even as a young man before the war, Tod (now Odilo) reads like some kind of sociopath. I don't think people abuse their wives and terrorize their neighbors just because they're allowed to.  Too many of us drift along with the historical tides, but others smile and merrily dig in an oar.

Heavy stuff, and you know what?  Enough already.  I want to say that the problem here is that Time's Arrow either deals with far too weighty a subject for a gimmick book, or it's far too gimmicky and ironic for a Holocaust book. 

Or maybe that's not exactly the right complaint.  This backwards thing** is well-suited to terrifying experience, but, I think, it invites a more existential and universal sort of anxiety, giving us readers a rare alternate angle on these nagging questions of what it means to briefly be thinking meat in an incomprehensibly complex universe.  I mean, you don't need genocide to make that point. 

I found myself fixated on the reality of the narrator.  I don't actually think Amis addresses "the rules" to my satisfaction, but he manages to squirrel away from scrutiny because it's such a short book.  The speaker knows back from forward, and for that matter, he's stuck working in the language and metaphor we know, which is inevitably built on a foundation of causality... so why does he accept the mode of his experience?  (And when he briefly asserts normal time, why doesn't the return to reverse chronology keep bothering him?)  And who the hell is he narrating to?  What is his perception of elapsed time?   Because the continuity of his thought (that is, this short novel) sure makes it seems like he's walking us through a whole backwards life in the space of an hour or two.  I settled in my mind that it was not an alien presence talking to us, but some other projection of Tod/Odilo himself.  That is, another artifact of the same bolted-together biohardware floating there in space-time, one that is merely perceiving things in a different way, because after all, who the fuck knows the hidden depths of how all this works.  And the message here--the holy-shit, make-you-think part that has really kept this novel alive in my mind--is that we can't condemn the widdershins experience for being any more arbitrary and bizarre than this one.  We are only along for the ride on time's forward arrow too.  The best we can really do is comment.

* Speaking of detached humor, and evil, and layers of irony, oh look, Martin Amis wrote the introduction to the copy of Lolita  that I read.  Seems fitting.

** It's not the most common one, but I think it's fair to call it a trope.  I was tearing through my shelves trying to find it, but once again, the internet was the better tool:  the first story I remember reading in this vein was called Divine Madness, by Roger Zelazny (which, I will add, didn't suck).  That one got to the scary and sensitive too, and didn't even require awful people doing unimaginable things. 

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

When I was reading this book last December, up popped a spookily coincident NPR story about new developments in ransomware, where hackers would only take payments in bitcoin to free up your locked files.  Bitcoin, meanwhile, isn't far removed in either concept or practice from in-world video game currency, and we all remember the karmic hilarity when its largest exchange, Mt. Gox (still hanging on to its original name, when it was made for investing virtual gaming loot), went ass-up a couple of years ago, with hundreds of thousands of electronic Fun Bux still unaccounted for.  In Reamde, Stephenson only got ahead of these stories by a couple of years.  Science fiction?  Maybe just barely.

The story is set in motion when reclusive billionaire Richard Forthrast and his niece Zula inadvertently cross paths with a small-time criminal connected to the Russian mafia.  Chases and movie violence follow, but the nut of it all is that our short-for-this-novel thug had been contracted to deliver some data to the mobsters, but it got locked up in ransomware that infected his computer while he was up the night before playing fictional online RPG, T'Rain.  Zula winds up kidnapped and dragged along with the Russians as they look for these hackers to get the data, and a growing cast of interesting characters scramble to respond.  (It already sounds complicated, right?)  Will the kidnappers realize they've got the niece of the guy who struck it filthy rich inventing the game?

And here's a confession: I played World of Warcraft sporadically for a recent year or two.  I didn't really play it right*--because hey, it's me--but I can certainly attest how compelling is the sheer size of the world and all its official supporting background lore, as well as the organic depth it has grown from all the people wandering around and feeling out the stories.  The fictional T'Rain is fashioned as the next generation of WoW, and Stephenson delivers a pile of backstory on how something so broad could come together. 

We're introduced to many of the fictional game developers, various sorts of geek obsessives who make Richard Forthrast (Vietnam-era draft dodger, erstwhile weed smuggler, with his family of borderline survivalist crackpots) look like a grounded member of normal society.  The game world is built on an inappropriately thorough (and otherwise uselessly fictional) geological model developed by one of its founding geniuses.  One conceit of T'Rain is that it does its world-building from, literally, the ground up--that is, it is a planet which generates its mineral wealth (a big deal when everything in it priced in gold pieces) by some academic-level approximation of natural processes.  The reason it isn't called Terrain is that Richard also brought on a couple of by-the-pound fantasy authors to crank out a world's worth of cultural backstory, one of whom is a prolific hack, unapologetic about chucking apostrophes into every proper noun.  (The other fancies himself a scholar and a linguist, and they drive each other amusingly nuts.)  Sadly, these guys amount to not much more than subplots, but it's a secondary challenge to somehow fold players' rogue behaviors into the proper game.

The other conceit of the game is that it's built to encourage gold farming.  Gps are transferrable to the outside world as currency, and players can fall under one anothers' vassalage.  Low-level users are effectively paid a pittance to mine out T'Rain (often using bots), while players with higher purposes typically pay dues and have better quests.  If WoW once gave economists a small thrill to observe it as a microcosm of a regulated economy, they'd go nuts about T'Rain, which has a permanent labor class and extraction-based wealth baked right into it.  Stephenson is a good enough writer not to make this into a polemic, although I think he wants it seen as more mutually beneficial than fundamentally unequal.  He does wind out a longer picture of the players behind all the exploited toons--the world where the Chinese hackers grew up, but those guys frankly end up okay.

So anyway, the key to some criminal filing cabinet is locked up in T'Rain somewhere, and all the best scenes in the book--mostly because they're so strange--have the characters chasing one another around in the game environment.  Outside, there is a real-world pursuit going on too, and we see these hackers and trolls get to see fleshed out as real people, which is something anyone who's spent time online wonders about.  (It doesn't take long for us to get squarely sympathetic with this guy who basically writes spam emails for a living.)  There's a tightly-plotted novel in those events, and some logical conclusions. 

And instead, we have a thousand-page monster here.  It's an undeniably entertaining one (this is possibly the fastest kilopage I've ever been through--I was up late reading it every night), but there's a great big action movie that grows out of the central plot like an aggressive tumor, complete with spies and terrorist extremists and numerous deaths just off screen, just to show how evil these terrorist assholes are.  It's enjoyable as entertainment, and I'm glad that Stephenson takes moments in all this to point out actual physics of ballistics and human endurance, but there's a sense of just cranking it all out at top speed.  Romances don't really go anywhere, some of those natural conclusions are forgotten about (why didn't Richard take Marlon the hacker under his wing, just like he did his niece?  that would have been perfect) and we kind of forget about all those eccentric game developers too.  And why are the baddies so cartoonishly evil, when there's such rich comedy to be mined by pitting them against the American version of jihadis (Richard's more eccentric relatives) in the final showdown?  Especially considering that getting the whole cast to this improbable point took so much effort.

I won't fail to recommend this one (and Stephenson isn't known for his endings anyway), but I would have enjoyed the carefully tied-together version more.  I like to think he was writing as fast as he could to keep current events from catching up to his speculation.

*I think to get the most of any MMORPG, you really have to go in for the team aspect of it, block off time, and talk out loud to others.  Instead, I mostly played as a means to randomly and quietly get away from people, which is pretty much the opposite thing.  You can play WoW as a solo quest game, but it only goes so far that way.  I still miss wandering around sometimes, though.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Review: 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

In the story of 2312, the emotional world of a gentle young acolyte explodes open when he discovers an ancient musical instrument in the caves outside Megadon city, under the twin moons of his home planet.  But, deterred by Father Brown and the other Temple priests, he suffers a mental breakd--

Oh shit.  Wait.  No, I'm describing the progressive rock epic, 2112.  The science fiction novel, 2312 is set a couple hundred years later.  Obviously.

It (the novel) primarily serves as a wide-angle view of life in the civilized solar system that takes place on almost all the other planets of the solar federation.  It's conveyed mosaic-like, primarily filled with point-of-view character sections, soaring across diverse geography, liberally broken up with creative lists, encyclopedia entries, interpretations of contemporary art forms, and highlights from historical documents.  (I'd bet that Mr. Robinson has also enjoyed a John Dos Passos phase.)

The year 2312, in Robinson's history, is a pivotal one.  The plot is... well, there is a plot, I guess.  The story begins with an attack on the primary human settlement on Mercury.  Swan Er Hong and Fitz Wahram, our two protagonists, are connected in different ways to one of extended humanity's key independent political and scientific groups, and in that capacity, they chase the whodunit clues around the solar system.  I believe that, plot-wise, the effect is meant to be one of various paths intersecting, showcasing kind of an inflection point between the ages in that titular, and no solid climax is really intended.  That's fine, but it's centered on a mystery and a chase, and that motor doesn't propel things forward worth a damn--seriously, I recall finding myself 200 pages in, trying to catalogue whether any movement toward solving the central mystery had occurred at all--and even by the end of the book, all that's really revealed is that the human sphere is a little bigger than realized, and that there are new factions in it, with different motivations. 

But for all that, it's not an unpleasant traipse.  Robinson's schtick, as I understand things, is environmentally-themed sf.  If we presuppose that human capability could advance so far, then how the heck could it be done?  I believe that 2312 takes place in the same continuity as his more famous Mars trilogy (probably why it's skirted here in favor of everything else), in which Robinson took to task a plausible-within-known-physics approach to making the red planet habitable, complete with planet-scale engineering and challenging political ramifications.  (Or so I understand without having read them--this is a theme of interest to me, but with a new author, I preferred a standalone volume for an introduction.) 

2312 takes place in the century following an established Martian civilization.  Most of the rest of the system has been worked over similarly by that year, and Robinson takes care to describe how, in the case of each sterile alien desert, a stable human environment could conceivably be engineered, trucking nitrogen from Titan, for example, or cooling Venus and whacking it hard enough with celestial objects to give it a day.  And if people lived on that toxic, cataclysmic rock, then what would the transition be like?  Or could a city could thrive by constantly fleeing the blazing hellscape of Mercury's bright side?  How could small bodies could be turned into floating terraria of all varieties?  (Robinson creates a lot of cultural diversity in these outskirts, and he smirks at a lot of classic science fiction societies along the way.)  How could our own earth possibly be un-fucked?  Robinson really enjoys humanizing these landscapes (figuratively and literally), and he shows at least enough scientific grasp of ecology, and paints enough limitations and constraints, for me to suspend my disbelief.  Even in 2312, with the ability to shift matter throughout the system at will, humanity is starting to confront resource shortages.  And so it goes.

My disbelief in human cooperation was a little harder to suspend, though.  One problem for me is that his society me an unfortunate parallel with those John Varley Seven Worlds novels (which I love), which maybe didn't wrangle the angle of geological science in such a detailed way, but understood us hairless apes so very brilliantly, and that society spread hypothetically across the ecliptic plane was dysfunctional enough to accept.  Real governments and populations are so diverse and cloying--and Robinson worked at this, I realize, he was taking a good approach to express exactly this, but the locals were still not shown as stultifying enough or brutal enough to convince me they could overcome themselves.  Maybe it's just my cynicism: I can't convince myself that 20 billion of us would survive indefinitely in a state of high technology, even after extending the odds by moving into every abandoned shack in Sol's neighborhood and squeaking a few minor gods out of the machine.

Not to say Robinson's individual characters are unconvincing.  I liked them well enough, and they kept me reading.  I think he did succeed in creating very exotic and altered people who could, superseding every homer prejudice we would ordinarily have, be easily recognized as not only regular folks, but good, decent, and distinguishable ones.  Of course, if, before I invested in them, I had caught on that impulsive, self-destructive Swan was not only from Mercury but mercurial, and that patient, thoughtful Wahram, from Titan, was literally saturnine, I might have found it a hair too cute.  So I may have just ruined them for you, but it worked out for me.  In all, it was a enjoyable tour.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Review: Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

it's the beard that does it
It feels a little silly that this review will take me almost as long to write (an hour or two, depending on my level of focus) as it took to read the book, but, you know, someone needs to tell you to go out and buy it.  It's not just that it's funny and insightful (it is), or that the author's primitively drawn dad is so darn compelling and handsome (he is!), or that you want to read the handful of strips of new content written just for the book (you do).  Do it because you'll feel better about finally sending a few nickels Ms. Brosh's way for the comics you enjoyed for free for years. Because, now that I made you think about it, your image of being a Good Person who cares about independent authors is finally coming into conflict with your cheapness and your glee about getting a quality freebie for this long.  Agonizing over whether to pay the writer will give you all the tools you need to love, hate, and become bemused with yourself, all at the same time, which is precisely the correct motivation for reading her strip in the first place.

Oh, and also there's general-purpose life stories and bits about dogs.  Here's a woman who knows how to tell you about the dysfunctional mind of a canine.  Another great reason.

Before buying the book, I hadn't checked the Hyperbole and a Half blog since she'd apparently left the game, ostensibly to assemble the book, but also with a cliffhanger about depression, which is a hell of a place to last see anyone.  (She followed it up two years later, and, reassuringly, there's an unrelated new-ish post up there as well.)  I don't share the manic, imaginative side of Brosh's temperament, which is why I will never create a comedy routine out of it all, but I get all too well the inward-looking side, where self-awareness comes perilously close to self-image, and as another person who perceives himself as just barely smart enough to detect my own delusion, irrationality, and inadequacy, I understand how it can get you down, and farther down.  (The bits about identity got to me most.  As for depression, I sometimes think the only thing that staves off the clinical version is my abject terror of getting trapped in there without the tools to get out.)  You, dear reader, probably know this balance pretty well yourself (introverts of the world, unite! think quietly about this by yourselves), and I commend Brosh for the ability to write poignant (and sometimes silly) jokes about the kinds of things that can go on in the deep places.

Although it's illustrated, the form is not really a comic, and although it's written, it's not really a book or an essay either.  I wish the thought were original with me, but I've read the form of Hyperbole and a Half described as the text equivalent of a standup routine.  To capture the timing of that delivery is very impressive, and it couldn't be done without using the pictures, without an intuition of how long it takes them to convey the content, and without reducing that content to some kind of essence.  They're crude, yeah, but they're brilliantly crude.

So buy it, or, if you're too cheap, go troll the blog.  Laugh mostly, and cry when you need to.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Review: Home, by Marilynne Robinson

Way back in April, I reviewed the novel Gilead by the same author. In a comment, Bright (who as usual was right) recommended the followup Home maybe a month later. I eventually got to reading it a month or two after that, and, finally, I'm just now am writing something about it. I guess that's how things are these days.

The reading part flew by though, a flickering instant in my current slow time. I don't even know how it could have been such a page-turner. It fills in the other half (or the other third--it looks like Robinson has recently followed up with Lila as well) of the story that was told in Gilead, but it does so straightforwardly, without layering in new mysteries or misdirection, or much new plot. Lost is that strange meta element from the last novel with its weighty and unspoken secrets to decode (some of those relationships don't look so meaningful from the other side, sadly), but it kept my interest just the same. It's the story of Jack Boughton (imagined by John Ames of the last novel as some kind of secret-sharer, but now just a man) and his return visit home, now filled out from a closer perspective.

Jack remains irresolute, although he's more likeably so this time, because we see him trying so hard to overcome himself. We get to know his sister Glory as the primary point-of-view character too--the lone sibling who stayed home with their father--and it's satisfying to watch her (inhabited by her own doubts and failures) form an uneasy alliance, and eventually a genuine understanding, with her brother. Neither, in their way, has lived up to their family ideal, but then that perfect family is given to be a bit of a veneer too, and one which has worn through with the passage of time. It's as though the Boughtons were the family that tried a little too hard to express a joyous bond, the one that laid on the Christian middle-American values a little too thickly.  (Their reverend father had no worse motive than practicing what he preached, but his version of the story wasn't quite big enough for the world.)  The edifice itself, even, is a big pile of kitsch, with an unused tire swing and red barn in the view, and choked inside with dusty bric-a-brac, loaded up with tired ideas of family. The Boughtons never solved the inevitable scandals and disappointments in their lives with love, but they used a prescribed kind of love to paper them all over.

(Their house, by the way, reminds me of my grandparents' house, and Mr. Boughton a bit of my grandmother in her late days. It's a little uncomfortable.)

To this Jack returns, a ship at sea, either fleeing or seeking harbor, take your pick. His father is in failing health, and although it's not really why he came back, Jack can't avoid facing him in his decrepitude. It's no stretch to paint the old man as the fading embodiment of home itself, and I feel very guilty about it, but he's irritating. Whenever a real conversation starts to develop between Jack and Glory, in dodders old Boughton to demand attention, always diverting the story into the boring territory of meals, naps, and efforts at comfort. He keeps interjecting these small vanities, and it builds up to a sad climax where he finally judges, finally castigates Jack after all these years.  And thus spent, he's at last free to drift away for good.

I could relate to Jack and Glory's discomfort in their home and with their father, and with their degrees and methods of distancing.  Some ideas of "goodness" are really in contrast here (in terms of worldly matters like equality or American hegemony, Jack is by far the better man; in terms of preserving their father's idea of love, overlooked Glory is by far the more noble of her several siblings).  Jack's difficult to connect to just the same, as his rebellion is a matter of his constitution, and his sins remain big ones, even though a desire to poke a stick at his postcard existence makes sense to me.  Glory's hidden shame (living in sin, OMG!) was easier to relate.  Her descent, such as it is, is more inadvertent, and there's a balance here between accepting her own agency and society's in making her life choices into false dilemmas.  I kind of wish Robinson had removed a few of the pancake breakfast scenes in order to paint these personal vs. social notions of goodness more starkly.

Jack, of course, doesn't stay, and Robinson is unlikely to ever let us know what happened to him next.  But he can't really ever separate from his own life either, and his general disconnection, it's clear, is a lot like homelessness.  The question floats up near the end, is home the soul we can't get away from?  It's an artifice, but is it essential to our humanity just the same?  We are all, after all, written into the world.  How much distance can we really get away from the plot? 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman

Maus, as currently published, is a collection of graphic stories that were serialized between 1974 and 1991. (It has been previously released as two volumes--My Father Bleeds History, and Here My Troubles Began, and this edition combines them all.)  I'd heard of it over the years, but finally read it after my daughter was assigned a copy for her history class. (At 17, it was the kid's first experience with the comic book format, which makes me feel as though I've failed as a parent.) It's a family memoir, his father's recollection of the Holocaust, and the author's own reflection of the legacy it left on himself and his family. I've been finding it difficult to review, and obviously it's taken me some time.

I can't do much service describing Spiegelman's significance in the underground comics movement (go to Wikipedia for that), but suffice to say, don't think superheroes and adolescent nerds here: this is a man who advocates cartooning and comics as an intellectual art form (Maus is the first publication in this format to win a Pulitzer), and experiments with the dense quality of the medium for storytelling. He is particularly invested, I think, in working out which sorts of things comic frames are particularly well-suited to convey, and how working concepts out in that medium can add something unique to the storytelling, with a taste for pushing boundaries. (In an explicit example, there's a clever segment discussing how voices and stories can be impositions on memory, but graphic art is unique in that it can communicate wordlessness.)

Although it's told in a visual medium, Maus, as a comic, relies less on the spectacle of those visuals than you might think--it's not a painting, in other words, it's a narrative, and the art serves as an ongoing comment to the plot and character, and often bears the forward motion and rhythm of the story. (The book is entirely in black and white, which I tend to prefer, but it's drawn somewhat roughly and is heavy on the inks.) Speigelman draws humans with animal faces, different ones for different cultures. Jews are mice, rooted out by the Nazi cats. Christian Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs, and there's an occasional French frog or Gypsy cricket in the mix. To me, it called to mind those vintage Donald Duck comics I had in the pile as a kid, and eventually I came to realize that the evocation of Disney was intentional--Maus as the Mouse--a borrowed iconic motif. But the drawings didn't remind me of Mickey and Donald so much as those chimerical dog-faced creatures--whatever the hell species Goofy and Pete are supposed to be--that seemed to populate the entire cast of Disney comic extras, and I found the effect creepily anonymizing. The few times Spiegelman draws the characters with human faces, they get some sudden impact as individuals. 

Sometimes the animal faces are shown as masks. When old Vladek pretends to be a non-Jewish Pole, his piggy face is tied on with a string. And the times when Spiegelman the author gets a little closer to the fourth wall, his mouse mask is revealed too. Is cultural identity something you wear or something you are? I like to think it's the former, but I realize that's a privileged opinion to have. The Polish Jews had no choice in the matter.

Vladek's story is given to his son in a matter-of-fact way (they are based on real-life taped interviews with his father), and even as the world constricts around him, he gets right on with what was happening then and what happened next.  The old man often erupts in incredulity or irritability, and he recalls many people fondly, but the sorrow and the loss are deeper emotions for him, clearly harder to access.  His story is one of luck and uncanny pragmatism as he evades one scrape, buys a bit of time till the next (worse) one, networks within his limits, shaves any tiny advantage, bails when he must.  He and his wife give their first son to an imagined safer haven, and the poor kid and his cousins are poisoned rather than face capture by the Nazis.  One of the scenes that sticks with me is how, at the war's end when prisoners were shipped from the camp, stuffed into railroad cars by the Nazis, Vladek manages to hoist himself up on a hammock made out of a hoarded shirt, while the crowd is jammed in below him.  How can you survive as people suffocate and die in piles below you without shutting off some chunk of your empathy?  And yet it's when his wife--another survivor--commits suicide years after the war, that the old man finally turns into himself, the last moment we see of him before crossing over to inflexible geezerhood. 

It makes it hard for the American son.  Nearly half the story is set in the book's present day, with Art dealing with his relationship with his father, trying to put his own grownup feelings of guilt and inadequacy and irritation in a context he can grapple with.  In some ways, Vladek is everyone's aging parent, caught behind modern sensibilities and too old to care too much about them.  But not much deeper than that, it's been impossible to live up to a dead older brother, or to a dead sainted wife and mother, and given what the old man has been through, it's got to feel incredibly selfish to demand any kind of attention.  So Spiegelman gets him to open up about the experience instead, lets it serve as both therapy and tribute, and the world gets Maus