Short Reviews of Books I've Read Recently


The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip José Farmer (1971)
This book pretty much represents everything that is both good and bad about Philip José Farmer. On the one hand, it is full of wondrous ideas; it's the second volume of his RiverWorld series in which every human who has ever lived wakes up on an enormous river, and it's about Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) trying to build a boat to go up the river and find its source. He is aided by a giant proto-human, Odysseus, and Cyrano De Bergerac (who has, incidentally, shacked up with Clemens' wife) and fights against King John of England, Ieyasu of Japan and the Nazi Hermann Goring, who has joined a cult of pacifists. It's a wild book, full of antics, mayhem and crazy ideas, though it could probably lose a few scenes where the characters sit around talking about RiverWorld politics or in which Clemens gets all emo about Bergerac and his wife. Its main problems, however, are Farmer's lazy and clumsy prose style, which he seems to have inherited from his beloved 30's pulp fiction, and the constant repetition of things that are going on and that we already know, which probably stems from the book's original serialized form and should have been excised when it was collected. Still, a very fun book, and representative of the maturing and development of adventure fiction in the early seventies, when the full effects of the New Wave were just starting to be felt with their increased sensitivity to race, gender, sex (a subject in which Farmer was a pioneer in SF) and non-European cultural traditions.

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison (2006)
M. John Harrison on the other hand, is one of the great prose stylists and Nova Swing, stand-alone sequel to his triumphant Light, is a beautiful, marvelous book about people living on planet where a Roadside Picnic-like zone of weirdness distorts reality and dispenses, for no apparent reason, lots of black and white cats. The main character, Vic Serotonin (following the CyberPunk tradition of character naming which includes Johnny Mnemonic and Hiro Protagonist) functions as a tour guide through the zone, and the book is primarily concerned with how people try to live their ordinary lives in a world in which nothing can be relied on, in which reality itself might fall away from you. I already linked to a particularly moving paragraph from the novel that I singled out on my writing blog.

The Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (1990)
This is probably the best "Space Opera" novel I've ever read. It's the story of an old mercenary who's is called back by his old masters in the Culture (a society of frighteningly powerful future humans ruled by a caste of AI, and the subject of many books by Banks) to perform one last, terrible job for them. This story is interspersed with chapters about the character's life, moving chronologically backwards, with each chapter illuminating some aspect of his history and character relevant to the forward-moving story in a way reminiscent of what was later done on the TV show Lost. Unlike that show, however, The Use of Weapons' ending is incredibly satisfying, forcing you to reevaluate everything you've just read in a new light, and Banks handles the tricky structure and staggered revelations with impressive deftness.

The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer (2010)
VanderMeer's latest collection of short fiction shows an ever-increasing maturity both in subject matter and in technical skill and I think this may be his best book so far. The novella "The Situation" is some kind of masterpiece for the way it disembowels life in the corporate world and transforms an office building into a strange and terrifying universe. The shocking thing about a story as good as that, however, is that it is shadowed by the novella "Errata", which is reminiscent of Borges and full of weirdness and metatextual deconstruction of the act of creation. The title story — which can be read here — is as haunting a version of a Germanic-style faerie tale as your likely to find. Really, there isn't a bad story in here, and the best of them easily rank among the best I've read in years.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1817)
Frankenstein is a book I've tried to read several times but, despite its short length, could never get through. There reasons are the ponderous asides about man and nature, the lunatic stupidity of Victor Frankenstein and his endlessly wearying emo whining about how terrible his life has become. One can't help but conclude if he'd just been nice to the monster from the start they would have gotten along splendidly, and it's only because the monster was treated like crap by his creator (as the monster himself declaims) does the creature go around murdering all his friends and family. The monster himself is wonderful, a tragic byronic hero full of tortured soul and maddening passions, but Victor is completely unsympathetic, and I just kind of wanted to punch him in the face. One's tempted to chalk these problems up to the Gothic style of the period, but I don't remember having this kind of reaction to the Gothic novel of Shelley's father, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, a book which I'd loved, and reading Frankenstein was spurred by a renewed interest in this period. I plan to read some more Gothic works, specifically The Castle of Otranto, Vathek and maybe The Mysteries of Udolpho and see how they compare.

Happy, In Fact: Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things

Time is a funny thing. It's only really there when you aren't paying any attention to it. Take notice of the passage of time, and it freezes in place, neither future nor past but rather the oppressive weight of a nowness that is paradoxically both never ending and impossibly fragile. There is a sense of this troubling temporality that shoots through all of Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things, which obsesses about temporal passage and what it does to us in a continual iteration of images. This "caughtness" by time is captured in lines like:

Buried by Midnight
I am a warm
fly in amber.

from "Miracle on the Hudson"


Usually no one goes
close enough to notice
the noise of biding time,
a vastly off-white habit
from patience.

from "Anarchy's Tiptoe"

What matters in these images, and others, recurring throughout the poems in this book, is that they establish time as a framework within which the entirety of the poet's concerns are found. This temporality is compounded by the sectioning of the book into the usual five acts of stage drama, forcing the rhythm and expectation of a linear dramatic narrative onto the inherently nonlinear scraps of theater contained within each Act. Here then, are the slaves, the characters and persons collected within King's poems bearing under the weight of the master time, and also the master of the poet who is never far from the page. Because these poems are in no way about time, but they are within time and the concerns of lust and love, sex and death, growth and evolution are all made heavy by the burden of time's whip upon them.

Logicomix: A Short Review

I just read Logicomix. Very interesting. Should have taken the tractatus more seriously, but that's ok, even a lot of professional philosophers don't understand it.

The impact of World War One on modernity is beautifully captured by a two page layout of Wittgenstein standing in the middle of no man's land and a caption by Russell saying "put a man on the edge of the abyss, and in the unlikely event that he doesn't fall in he will become either a mystic or a madman."

The themes betray a computer scientist's fondness for Turing, algorithms, and computation that if not wholly misplaced is not the answer to everything that many computer geeks think it is.

Yet again i find myself wishing that more people would read Hubert Dreyfuss.

But Dreyfuss himself doesn't understand The Philosophical Investigations point on psychology and in his commitment ot Heideggerean phenomenology founded in metaphysics as opposed to a Wittgensteinian one founded in language, he concedes too much to the model makers.

The Best of My 125 Book Year

Some years ago a "52-books-in-a-year" meme sprouted up, in which people "challenged" themselves to read a book a week for a year. I thought at the time, as I do now, that this is an absurdly small number of books; reading for merely a half-an-hour to an hour a day one can easily polish off a book a week (depending, admittedly, on the length and difficulty of the book and the reading speed of the individual). Considering that the "average" American supposedly watches four hours of television a day, sacrificing a quarter of that to book reading doesn't seem like much of a challenge, and I'm under the impression that most bibliophiles read quite a bit more and watch quite a bit less. To prove the point at the beginning of 2009 I decided to simply keep track of my reading. My final tally came to 125 books. You can see whole list at Library Thing. (The Doc Savage book "The Man of Bronze/The Land of Terror" counts twice as it's two books collected as one.) Below are short reviews of the best of this list.

Review: The Best of Michael Moorcock

This article is part of a series on the work of Michael Moorcock that will culminate in an interview with the man himself. The story collection The Best of Michael Moorcock is his most recent book.

Considering the work of a writer like Michael Moorcock can be a little intimidating if only because of the sheer volume of material one is dealing with. Over the course of his fifty-year-plus career, Moorcock has written dozens and dozens of books in nearly every genre, and his influence has been broad and immeasurable. His books were formative to the New Wave SF movement that he himself spearheaded in the sixties and seventies, which in turn helped define the SF (and much non-SF) that would come after. His books influenced the creation of Dungeons and Dragons and the plots of children's TV shows. His character Elric was parodied by Dave Sim in the comic Cerebus, his literary fiction novel Mother London was called "one of the most astonishing London novels ever written ... a tour de force" by Alan Moore, and Michael Chabon dedicated his Moorcock-esque historical adventure novel Gentlemen of the Road to him. In the seventies Moorcock even performed with the rock bands Blue Oyster Cult and Hawkwind, who both based songs on his work (in Hawkwind's case, a whole album), as well as with his own band The Deep Fix. The man is an eclectic talent, and a prolific one.

Kindle for iPhone/iPod Touch Sucks

The Kindle app for the iPhone/iPod Touch is easily the worst ebook reader I've ever tried to use. First and most annoying, the text is full justified, and there's nothing you can do to change that, which on the tiny iPod Touch screen makes huge, gaping spaces in between the words. Then, you can't change the font, only a limited number of font sizes, and the only options for coloring are black on white, white on black, or brown on sepia. There's no search feature to speak of. And worst of all, when you look to see how far along into the book you are, it says something like "169-172". Turn to the next page and it says "172-175". Huh? What does that mean. I tried to find some kind of built-in documentation, but the "help" button takes you to a web page (no help if you're not online, which frustrated me in the subway this morning) and on the webpage you have to navigate through a bunch of stuff about the Kindle device before you get to a FAQ page that tells you almost nothing about the app or what the mysterious numbers on the bottom mean.

After some creative Google searching I did find a page on the Amazon site that mentions that the Kindle uses "location numbers", but no explanation of what those numbers are actually supposed to mean.

What a piece of garbage. It wouldn't be so annoying if Sony wasn't dragging its heals about getting me a replacement Sony Reader after I broke mine (which deserves another post all by itself, WTF Sony?? It's been weeks! But I digress). This book I really want to read digitally is only available to me through the Kindle store or the Sony Store, and as Sony formatted books are basically useless without a Sony Reader, the Kindle won out. (Needless to say I would much much much prefer the book in an open, non-DRM'd format (cough ePub cough cough) that I could read on any device and with any program, so I could bring it into a real ebook reader like Stanza. But instead I'm stuck with this crappy software as the only way to read something I ostensibly own and should be able to to what I like with. Gah.)

Star Trek: What a Ridiculous Load of Crap

Massive spoilers below.

EDIT: added more notes at the bottom.

Imagine if you will that there's a magic red goop, and that a single drop of this goop—one drop!—can create a black hole. Now imagine that a whole man-sized container of the stuff (which one needs, for some reason, because a few drops just won't do the job) smashes in the middle of a starship. Now imagine that for some reason that ship is still around with a giant black hole forming all around it and you can have a nice conversation with the captain of that and then decide for some reason you need to shoot him with your phasers and photon torpedoes because the black hole hasn't completely destroyed them already.

Okay, now imagine that you sky dive from space into the atmosphere of a planet. There is no sense of burning up on reentry or even any sort of heat. Then you land on a giant laser drill in the stratosphere. This drill is hanging off of a ship in space and is drilling a hole in the planet, but there's no sense at all of the ship maintaining geosynchronous orbit; indeed the drill seems to be moving around quite a lot and yet is still drilling this big hole. Oh yeah, and the reason you need a big hole? Because you want to put a drop of red black hole goo in the center of the planet to destroy it because for some reason creating a black hole anywhere in the general vicinity of the planet isn't good enough. (Why do they bother even using the term "black hole" if they have no desire to have anything to do with what a black hole is or does?) But okay, so then you land on your space drill. You whip off your helmets and have no trouble at all breathing up in the stratosphere. Then for some reason the drill is manned, and the bad guys come out and you all have a big kung fu fight up on the top, complete with flips and acrobatics. On a platform in the open air in the stratosphere. And nobody just blows right off.

I don't think I've ever in my life seen an ostensible Science Fiction movie with such complete contempt for science. Space Balls had better science. Godzilla had better science (all of them).

My Review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

My Little Brother by Cory Docotorow is up over at Literary Kicks. Here's an excerpt:

One thing you have to say for Little Brother, Cory Doctorow's recent book for young adults (now nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel): it's ambitious. It is an adventure story about teenage terrorism that's also a screed on the importance and meaning of the right to privacy and a guide to bad government practices and how to fight them, a novel made manifesto and handbook. The book tells us, for example, why anti-terrorism measures like ramped-up airplane security are bad, or how to safely destroy the RFID tag in a passport. It's useful. It's also pretty blatant propaganda, and it is its nature as a work of propaganda that ultimately undermines its effectiveness as a work of fiction.

Go read the rest.

Best American Fantasy 2

Out right now: Best American Fantasy 2 (v. 2). This book contains some stunning stories, including "The Drowned Life" by Jeffrey Ford, which reminded me of Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading; a story by Peter S. Beagle that's deceptively Borgesian in its investigation of identity; and Kelly Link proving yet again why she's the best short story writer working today. This is what good short fiction looks like, this is the kind of anthology you want to buy.

Seriously, go buy now. Especially you, Quackenbush.

My Review of Logorrhea

My review of the short fiction anthology Logorrhea has just been published on the New Haven Review website.

The New Haven Review incidentally is edited by Brian Francis Slattery, the very excellent author of Spaceman Blues: A Love Song and Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America (which books you should read right now), and is worth checking out.