The Library of Babel: July 2002

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for June of 2002.

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July 28, 2002

Vitals by Greg Bear. Greg Bear is an author who has slipped on and off my "Buy On Sight" list over the years. I absolutely loved the books he wrote when I was in junior high and high school (The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage (republished as Songs of Earth and Power) were my favorites, closely followed by Blood Music), but he sort of fell into a rut, and slipped in the rankings, as it were. He got back onto the "Buy On Sight" list with Moving Mars, stayed there for a few books, and fell off again with Darwin's Radio which managed to mix Crichton-level biology with Clancy-level dialogue. Not a good combination.

Vitals (which I checked out of the library) is another book in the thriller-ish mode of Darwin's Radio, and also part of his fine tradition of catastrophilia (most of his books involve some science-fictional widget which brings an End to the World As We Know It). The book follows the story of Hal Cousins, a biologist working on a cure for aging, and a man not afraid of an "As You Know Bob" infodump or two:

"Radical gene therapy," Montoya mused.

"Some call it that," I said. "But it's just baby steps to solving an ancient murder mystery. Who designed us to die, and why? It turns out we're being betrayed by cellular organelles, little organs, called mitochondria. Mitochondria make ATP. ATP is the molecule our cells use to store and release energy. Once upon a time, mitochondria were bacteria. We know that because they have their own little loops of DNA, like bacterial chromosomes."

He watched me intently. "Respiration... seems pretty important. Breathing, using oxygen, right?"

I nodded.

"So why do we let old bacteria do that for us?"

"Mitochondria used to live free, a few billion years ago. Then they invaded primitive host cells, became parasites. Eventually, the hosts-- our one-celled ancestors-- found that the invaders had a talent. They were eight times better at converting sugar molecules into ATP. We formed a symbiotic partnership. The mitochondria became essential. Now, we can't live without them."

If that chunk of dialogue strikes you as clunky enough to be off-putting, don't pick this book up. It doesn't get any better.

The plot is fairly daft, involving mind control by means of bacteria, and the obligatory Sinister Conspiracy to... run the world, or something. The conspiracy actually seems fairly inoffensive, as Secret Cabals go-- they kill a bunch of people in the course of the book, but only to protect their secret, and they don't seem to have engaged in any really gratuitous Evil since WWII. There are a few reasonably good paranoid sequences in the book, but it mostly reads like an X Files episode rewritten to have a more nebbish-y protagonist.

The science strikes me as pretty dopey, and I'm not even a biologist-- God only knows what an actual biologist would think. Of course, there's an afterword where Bear claims that it's all based on real biology-- it might be, but he said the same thing about Darwin's Radio, and I know biologists who ripped that one to shreds.

(On a more general level, could we please put a stop to the practice of tacking these sorts of aterwords and author's notes onto novels? I really don't need to read a full bibliography for the novel, or cute anecdotes about the genesis of the idea. If you're an author, and want to make this stuff public, get yourself a web site. If you're an editor, and an author wants to do this, offer them web hosting. If they insist, make them read the section on "author's notes" in Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon. ("Oy! Yes, it's been a busy year at the Frank house, what with the Third Reich exterminating half the Jewish population of Holland, and I honestly don't know how I found time to write this book...")

(Personally, I blame Piers Anthony for this. End of digression.)

I'm half afraid to re-read older Bear books, for fear that I'll find that someone snuck into my library and replaced my much-loved old favorites with poorly written crap like this. I keep telling myself that he's always had a tendency toward books that fail in a similar manner-- Psychlone being a decent example-- and that I re-read Songs of Earth and Power not all that long ago and it was fine, but I'm still a little worried.

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July 24, 2002

HappinessTM by Will Ferguson. This is Ferguson's first published novel, but not his first book. I read his Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan a few years back, and enjoyed it very much-- he absolutely nails a lot of the experience of being a foreigner in Japan, which is only to be expected, as he was there for considerably longer than I was.

He also wrote a book called Why I Hate Canadians (he is, it should be noted, Canadian), and having seen that in his bio, I decided that some day, I would have to find and read that book. Alas, it doesn't seem to be in print in the US these days. When I stopped by the library this past weekend, though, I figured it'd be worth a shot to see if they had it. They didn't, but I did find this book (which I had seen dozens of times before-- the bright blue cover with a single daisy in the middle is pretty distinctive-- and not associated with Hokkaido Highway Blues).

This is the story of Edwin de Valu, a frustrated low-level editor at Panderic Press, who finds an unusual book while hacking through the slush pile one day:

He pulled the flop from its wrapping. It was huge, at least two reams' worth, more than a thousand pages. Jesus. Trees had died for this. The cover letter (and indeed, the entire manuscript, when Edwin flipped through to check) had been hand-pecked on an old manual typewriter, a sight so unusual that it stopped Edwin in mid-rejection letter. He turned to the title page. It was called What I learned on the Mountain, by someone named Rajee Tupak Soiree. Sprinkled across the page-- and here Edwin all but guffawed-- were little stickers of daisies (daisies, mind you), and along the bottom was a handwritten note that read "Live! Love! Learn!"

Edwin chortled in spite of himself. Live! Love! Learn! His mind was already churning up rejoinders: Go! Fuck! Yourself!

What I Learned on the Mountain turns out to be that rarest of rareties, a self-help book that works. People who read it really do discover the secrets of a happy life-- they become wealthy, have great sex, and are basically consumed by bliss. The book (which Edwin ends up publishing through a bizarre chain of events) becomes a runaway smash, and Tupak Soiree mania sweeps the nation, and the world. Predictably enough, this leads to the downfall of modern civilization, and it's up to the relentlessly cynical Edwin, his ex-hippie boss (who's a legend in the publishing world for having survived six years as a fact-checker for Tom Clancy), and "Mr. Ethics" (the author of a popular series of books on ethics, recently sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for killing tax auditors) to save the world.

It's a pretty good concept-- a sort of Thank You for Smoking for the self-help industry-- but the execution is uneven. There are some wonderfully clever send-ups of self-help books, a rare paean to the slush pile, and some nice satirical material, but in the end there's entirely too much telling and not enough showing. The sections where Edwin interacts with the newly blissful citizens are good, but there are far too many sections where grand, sweeping changes are condensed into a few short expository paragraphs. The narrative voice is also a little erratic-- mostly focusing on Edwin, but sometimes not; sometimes in present tense, sometimes not.

There are flashes of satirical inventiveness that really do rival Thank You for Smoking, and the parts that are good are very good indeed, but satire's a difficult thing to really pull off (Buckley's other books-- The White House Mess and Little Green Men don't work quite as well as Thank You for Smoking, either), even in as target-rich an environment as the self-help industry, and this doesn't quite work as well as it might've. Still, it's a quick read (I read the middle third or so while on the stationary bike at the gym), and it's fun to read in the same way that not-entirely successful satires generally are (see also Headcrash and The Big U ).

It'll be interesting to see what Ferguson does next. And I still want to find a copy of Why I Hate Canadians, just to have a book with that title on a shelf...

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July 18, 2002

Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick. I have a very mixed reaction to Michael Swanwick's books. On the one hand, he writes very well, and his books are certainly inventive. On the other, they're just plain weird. Stations of the Tide is one of the all-time great "What the hell was that?!?!" books-- I still have no idea what was going on in that book-- and I found The Iron Dragon's Daughter crushingly depressing. I never worked up the courage to start Jack Faust, having heard that its nihilism made The Iron Dragon's Daughter look like The Bobbsey Twins Go to the Seashore.

Still, the set-up for this one sounded awfully tempting: a shadowy government agent approaches Richard Leyster, a well-known and extremely successful paleontologist and offers him a job. Since Leyster already has pretty much everything he might want, career-wise, the stranger leaves behind a cooler with a little extra inducement:

Alone, Leyster thought: I won't open it. The best possible course would be ditch this thing in the nearest Dumpster. Whatever Griffin was peddling, it could only mean trouble. [...] Just this once, he was going to curb his curiosity and leave well enough alone.

He opened the cooler.

For a long, still moment, he stared at what was contained within, packed in ice. Then, dazedly, he reached inside and removed it. The flesh was cool under his hands. The skin moved slightly; he could feel the bones and muscles underneath.

It was the head of a Stegosaurus.

It seems that mysterious beings from the distant future have, for reasons of their own, loaned humanity the technology for time travel, making it possible to explore the Mesozoic Era directly. Soon, teams of paleontologists are being sent back in time to study living dinosaurs in their natural habitat. It's Jurassic Park in reverse, handled by a writer with talent-- all the popular species appear, and Swanwick presents a number of fascinating speculations about dinosaur biology.

Of course, the loan of time travel technology is subject to certain rules and conditions. And, of course, the rules get broken, the conditions violated, and somebody has to face the consequences...

This is a tremendously enjoyable and surprisingly straightforward book. Maybe Swanwick's mellowing with age, or maybe my tastes have shifted a bit, but I liked this a lot. The Mesozoic ecosystems are cleverly imagined and vividly described, and while I can't judge the accuracy of his descriptions of paleontology, he does capture the feel of scientists at work. There's also an almost playful approach taken with regard to time travel, with people looping back and forth in time to meet older and younger versions of themselves, and all sorts of near-paradoxes.

I'm not wild about the ending, which seems like a bit of a cop-out, and I'm not entirely sure I buy the reason given for the actions which start the main plot in motion. Still, it's the most accessible thing I've seen from Swanwick, and a very well done book. I got this out of the library last weekend, but I'll probably pick up a copy to keep at some point.

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July 15, 2002

A Trial by Jury by D. Graham Burnett. The "I don't want to read any of this" problem continued on Saturday, so I made a trip to the library, and picked this up. I read a few reviews when it came out, and the concept sounded interesting, even if it did tend to make Kate roll her eyes a bit.

D(avid) Graham Burnett is a "professor of intellectual history" in New York City, who got called for jury duty on a murder trial:

Actually ending up on a jury never crossed my mind. The day before I reported for duty I had a conversation with a friend in Chicago, a logician, who claimed that the magic word was "philosophy": once the lawyers heard it, you were kindly asked to leave. I figures introducing myself as an intellectual historian ought to have the same effect. With a legal-scholar wife who had worked for the public defender's office (and contributed to a lawyers' manual on death-penalty defense), I promised to give any healthy prosecutor hives. I brought along a copy of The New York Review of Books just in case.

Obviously, despite his initial thoughts, he ended up on a jury (even an intellectual historian would have difficulty making a 183-page book out of just being called for jury duty), eventually winding up as the foreman, and decided to make the best of it by writing a book about the experience.

Unfortunately, much of the book stands as a testament to why healthy prosecutors (and defense attorneys) really ought to get hives when an academic turns up for voir dire, particularly the jury statement Burnett crafts at the end, which must've had every attorney in the five boroughs rolling their eyes. The book is full of airy discourse about the meaning of justice, and the philosophical implications of the various elements of the deliberations. It's also very self-involved, for lack of a better word-- I'd be very interested to hear what some of the other jurors thought of the whole thing, or at least what they thought about the book. Burnett portrays himself as absolutely central to everything that happens, which may well be true (and at any rate is his right-- he's the one writing the book), so it'd be interesting to see what someone else thought.

This is a case where the book is probably a perfectly good example of what it is, but just isn't quite what I was hoping for. Which is a shame, because he landed a doozy of a case-- a murder trial where the defendant claimed he stabbed the victim in self-defense to prevent being sodomized against his will, having been lured to the apartment by the victim pretending to be a woman. It comes complete with campy drag queens called as witnesses, dubious evidence handling by the police, and a wonderfully ambiguous situation in which the defendant is the only living person who knows what actually happened. There's plenty of material here for a detailed examination of the mechanics of the system, and the imperfections of the process, and a discussion of how consensus is achieved among a diverse group of people presented with contradictory evidence. It had the potential to be Law and Order without Sam Waterston grandstanding, or Twelve Angry Men without a neat resolution, either of which could've been fascinating.

Instead, I was left with more philosophy than mechanics. The deliberations are, with few exceptions, presented in a sketchy, detached, and dispassionate way. Odd or quirky points of legal procedure are noted in passing, but the reasons for those procedures aren't explored (having run a few by Kate, there are good reasons for most of them). The conflicting witness accounts are almost completely dismissed, without much discussion of how or why the jurors decided what to believe. Most of the good bits (to my mind, at least) were glossed over, in favor of trite philosophizing (none of the conclusions are really breaking new ground in legal thought), and gratuitous poetry reading.

It's not a terrible book-- it raises a few interesting points (some of which I'll mention on my other weblog), and is a pretty easy read (despite occasionally wanting to reach through the page and smack the author for being a pretentious git, I read it more or less straight through). It's just not the book it could've been, and not quite the book I was looking for.

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July 14, 2002

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters. The apartment Kate and I presently occupy is basically knee-deep in books, many of them unread by one or both of us. And yet, as any reader knows, even presented with this embarrassment of riches, I'm still subject to days when I cast an eye over my "To Be Read" pile and say "I don't want to read any of this."

That happened the other night, and Kate suggested one of the Brother Cadfael series, which she's been reading bit by bit. It seemed as reasonable a suggestion as anything else, so I picked up this book, the first of the series.

As I said, Kate's been reading these, and logging them, including this one. I don't have a whole lot to add to her comments. Bother Cadfael's a likeable character, and the narrative voice (one of those semi-omniscient third-person things that there's probably a lit-crit term for) is engaging, with a fine eye for detail, and a slightly archaic tone that fits its subject well:

Prior Robert Pennant, of mixed Welsh and English blood, was more than six feet tall, attenuated and graceful, silver-grey of hair at fifty, blanched and beautiful of visage, with long, aristocratic features and lofty marble brow. There was no man in the midland shires would look more splendid in a mitre, superhuman in height and authority, and there was no man in England better aware of it, or more determined to prove it at the earliest opportunity. His very motions, sweeping across the chapter-house to his stall, understudied the pontificate.

As indicated by that passage, medieval Church politics figure moderately prominently in the story, and are approached with both realism and a sort of detached amusement which stops well short of satire. The mystery plot isn't anything all that mysterious, and the resolution is a bit too neat, but there are enough details of monastic life, clever observations about princes and priors, and interesting character nuances to make this an enjoyable read. I can't testify to the exact accuracy of the details of the setting, but it feels convincing enough to me, and that's really all that matters.

The writing doesn't have the same snap as Archie Goodwin's narration, but this looks to be another worthy entry in the category of "long-running mystery series suitable for light reading when nothing else seems appealing."

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July 9, 2002

A Scattering of Jades by Alexander C. Irvine. I picked this book up based largely on having seen the author on a few panels at Boskone. He seemed like a nice guy, and generally had interesting things to say, so I figured the book was worth a look. It didn't hurt that it draws on a seriously under-used set of source material-- Aztec mythology. As Steve Cook noted in reviewing another of the tiny number of books which draw on Central American myths, "You can't swing a cat in the fantasy section of your local bookstore without hitting a dozen horrible books in which Celtic mythology intersects with the workaday world," meaning that books which draw on non-Celtic sources have an added air of novelty that can overcome many other flaws.

This novel is a sort of secret history of early Nineteenth Century America, in which Aaron Burr's power-grab in 1806 was motivated by the desire to use Aztec sorcery to attain temporal power. Burr's attempt failed, but one of his confederates, itinerant con man Riley Steen, manages to find the body of the chacmool (a sort of evil were-jaguar spirit) in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The chacmool, found in a mummified state, will be re-animated through ancient sorcery:

The chacmool looked none the worse for its arduous trip from Kentucky. It lay on its back, the cloak of green quetzal feathers carefully arranged around it. Its hands were empty, crossed on the fragile skin of its chest; Steen had thought of mocking up some sort of weapon but decided against it. Barnum was an expert at spotting frauds when he cared to be, and Steen wasn't altogether sure he wanted the chacmool armed, not until he was reasonably certain of a few things.

Steen's watch said twelve o'clock. the light seemed to grow brighter in his left eye, while in his right it seemed to bend, as if deforming under some incredible weight. Ants, hundreds of them, appeared from nowhere to crawl across the wagon bed, and then the feathers started to move.

The chacmool plans to sacrifice a young girl, sorcerously marked by Steen some years earlier, in a ritual to bring an ancient god to life. This will bring the world to an end on April 3, 1843, unless something can be done to stop Steen and the chacmool. Of course, the chacmool turns out to be more than Steen was expecting, and Archie Prescott, the father of the intended sacrifice, and Stephen Bishop, a slave guide at Mammoth Cave, may have decisive roles to play.

The plotting is nicely done, with plenty of moral ambiguity in the choices faced by the characters, and the magic bits have a sort of Tim Powers feel to them, of vast, powerful forces only imperfectly controlled by the humans who seek to use them. The book seems to assume an unrealistic degree of familiarity with Aztec myth (read: "some familiarity"), and the cosmology never quite cam clear for me (though that might've been due to the disjointed way I read the book, spread over a couple of weeks of reading a little bit at a time in the evening), but it's an interesting system, and definitely not your typical twee neo-Celtic fairy stuff.

The book's biggest failing is that it runs afoul of the same problem which always seems to sink alternate histories or secret histories for me: the cameos by famous historical figures are a bit much. Aaron Burr is supposed to have set the whole thing in motion, P.T. Barnum is a minor player, and unless I badly misread things, Edgar Allen Poe pops in at one point. Luckily, Mark Twain was a small child, or he probably would've put in an appearance.

As the Washington Post's review (look quickly before it slides into their pay archives) noted, "Tales that reappropriate ancient myth structures are frequently wearisome. They tend to be overly mannered; their historical settings can easily sink under the weight of detail the author feels compelled to furnish." That excess of detail, combined with the historical personages appearing as characters, almost sinks the book in the first half. It gets on track later, and ends on a bit of a roll, but it wasn't that easy to get into.

Still, the book shows great promise. The events and settings were nicely drawn, and the magical bits were first-rate (assuming that you like the Powers-ish way of doing things...). I'll be interested to see what he does next.

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July 6, 2002

Coraline by Neil Gaiman. On the way out of town to spend a few days at my parents' house in Scenic Whitney Point, NY, Kate and I stopped at a local book store to pick up Neil Gaiman's latest novel in audiobook form. I'm generally not wild about the whole audiobook thing, but we'd heard Gaiman read the first few chapters at Boskone back in February, and he did a wonderful job, so the "narrated by the author" audiobook seemed a decent investment.

We listened to the first half on the way down to Whitney Point, then were busy with other things, and didn't get around to the second half. Kate listened to the second half on the way back, but I didn't, so I wound up finishing this in the traditional manner.

As Kate noted in her booklog comments, this is a fairy tale, and as you would expect from the author of the Sandman books, it plays a few games with archetypes of fantasy and so on. It's also a children's book, though, and has a wonderfully skewed view of the adult world. Coraline's interactions with the eccentric characters living in her subdivided house (among them the ex-thespian Miss Spink and Miss Forcible) are delightful:

"What am I in danger from?" asked Coraline.

Misses Spink and Forcible stared at her blankly. "It didn't say," said Miss Spink. "Tea leaves aren't reliable for that kind of thing. Not really. They're good for general, but not for specifics."

"What should I do then?" asked Coraline, who was slightly alarmed by this.

"Don't wear green in your dressing room," suggested Miss Spink.

"Or mention the Scottish play," added Miss Forcible.

Coraline wondered why so few of the adults she had met made any sense. She sometimes wondered who they thought they were talking to.

This is a fairly light book, as such things go-- not in subject matter, which gets fairly creepy, but in tone. In some ways, it's reminiscent of The Face in the Frost. Like the Bellairs book, it's an odd little book, but charming all the same.

I don't think I'd care to make a recommendation as to the format-- as I said above, I tend not to be a big fan of audiobooks, and the "flip over the tape" breaks which crop up in odd places in this one are a nice demonstration of why. But Gaiman's reading of the story is just about perfect, capturing the tone wonderfully. You're on your own as to the format, but whatever format you prefer, this book is worth a look.

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July 1, 2002

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Ted Chiang has a total of about seven published stories to his credit (eight, with the new story written for this volume). Of those seven stories, two have won Nebula Awards (sort of the Oscars of SF (with the Hugos being the Golden Globes)), making him probably the all-time batting average champion of the genre.

One of the longest-running and most pointless arguments I know of is the endless debate among SF fandom over what works are classified as science fiction, what are fantasy. These arguments can take on a near-religious fervor, but never really accomplish anything (tragically, the irony of fans in the genre-fiction ghetto having intense classification arguments (when most of them intensely resent being told in high school that SF isn't Literature) is lost on most of the participants...).

One incarnation of that argument on rec.arts.sf.written sprang up around Steven Brust and Emma Bull's Freedom and Necessity. There's very little overt magic in the book (things are hinted at, but never really explicit), but both authors are well-known genre fantasy authors. So what is the book? Is it fantasy, or is it mainstream?

Eventually, somebody came up with an answer that I liked a lot. "It's science fiction," they said, "and the science is Hegelian dialectic."

With that in mind, my one-sentence review of this book is: "Ted Chiang writes science fiction, where the science is metaphysics."

The stories in this volume are not so much about the effects and implications of new science and technology, but rather the effects and implications of different world views. We have a story where the Tower of Babel actually reaches the vault of Heaven, a story where Kabbalah is the basis of technology, a story where the arrival of aliens provokes a complete re-thinking of the nature of time, and a story where angels regularly visit the Earth, and the damned are seen descending into Hell. Even where the stories are driven by technical gimmicks-- a procedure for enhancing intelligence, a devastating mathematical proof, or a procedure for selectively turning off parts of the brain-- the point of the stories is more to explore the impact of these developments on how people see the world, than how the application of new technology changes society.

This is good stuff, science fiction seen from a seldom-used angle. In some ways, it's reminiscent of Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen, but Chiang is more clearly working within the genre. His stories feature the detailed explanations of science and technology that regular readers of the genre come to expect, and there's a reasonable amount of rigor in the science, but even when his characters sink to blatant info-dumping, he maintains a sure touch with dialogue and nuances of character, as in the following exchange between a linguist and a physicist (from "Story of Your Life"):

"Their script isn't word divided; a sentence is written by joining the logograms for the constituent words. They join the logograms by rotating and modifying them. Take a look." I showed him how the logograms were rotated.

"So they can read a word with equal ease no matter how it's rotated," Gary said. He turned to look at the heptapods, impressed. "I wonder if it's a consequence of their bodies' radial symmetry: their bodies have no 'forward' direction, so maybe their writing doesn't either. Highly neat."

I couldn't believe it; I was working with someone who modified the word "neat" with "highly."

If I had to voice any complaints about the collection, it would be that a couple of the later stories shade toward the heavy-handed and didactic, while none of the other stories in the collection match the punch of "Story of Your Life." But these are minor quibbles-- the ideas are cool enough to trump the didacticism, and the list of SF stories which do match the punch of "Story of Your Life" is a short one indeed. This is a superb collection, and I highly recommend it.

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As I'm not as ambitious or conscientious as Kate is, this isn't using any weblogging software at the moment-- I don't figure it will be updated regularly enough to require automatic archiving and the like.

The comment feature is provided by YACCS, and is dead simple to install. If you're looking to add comments to a weblog, it's a good way to go.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001