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broken up with creative lists, encyclopedia entries, interpretations of contemporary art forms, and highlights from historical documents.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.