Tag Archives: science fiction

Booklist 2012

Here are the books I read in 2012.

  • 11 Nov 2012:  The Passage, by Justin Cronin.
  • 31 Oct 2012:  Too Good To Be True, Benjamin Anastas.
  • 22 Oct 2012:  vN, Madeline Ashby.
  • 13 Oct 2012:  Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky.
  • 6 Oct 2012:  11/22/63, Stephen King.
  • 15 Sep 2012:  The Signal and the NoiseNate Silver.
  • 26 Aug 2012:  Mr. Smartypants, Michael Showalter.
  • 24 Aug 2012: Immobility, Brian Evenson.
  • 11 Aug 2012:  Permanent Emergency, Kip Hawley.
  • 10 Aug 2012:  Against Security, Harvey Molotch.
  • 6 Aug 2012:  Liars and Outliers, Bruce Schneier.
  • 25 Jul 2012:  The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg.
  • 14 Jul 2012:  The Pale King, David Foster Wallace.
  • 5 Jun 2012:  The Red Book, Deborah Copaken Kogan.
  • 20 May 2012:  The Outsourced Self, Arlie Russell Hochschild.
  • 13 May 2012:  Laughing Man, T.M. Wright.
  • 11 May 2012:  Strange Seed, T. M. Wright.
  • 6 May 2012:  The Scarlet Plague, Jack London.
  • 2 May 2012:  The Nephew, James Purdy.
  • 24 Apr 2012:  Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, Meghan Daum.
  • 1 Apr 2012:  The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins.
  • 26 Mar 2012: 1001, Jason Grote.
  • 13 Mar 2012: The Chicagoan 1.
  • 3 Feb 2012:  Simon: The Genius in my Basement, Alexander Masters.
  • 28 Jan 2012: Malcolm, James Purdy.
  • 22 Jan 2012:  In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman, William J. Cook.
  • 18 Jan 2012:  Freedom, Jonathan Franzen.

Links go to blogposts about the linked book.

So:  27 books.  Of these, 6 were books I was reviewing.  21 pleasure books is a pretty slim total for a year’s work!   There’s a list, too, of books that I read substantial chunks of in 2012 and which I still expect to finish:  Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers, Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus, Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (a re-read),… probably others I’ve forgotten.

This was the year I started occasionally reading books on a device; 5 of these were read on some combination of iPhone and iPad.  Included among these were four of the last five books I finished (along with two I haven’t finished, the Ford Madox Ford and the Julavits.)  This might mean that it’s easier to finish books on the device, or it might mean that I differentially tend to buy SF on the phone, and SF is (in general!  in general!) easy to read very quickly.

Actually, this was a very heavy SF year for me:  9 out of the 27 books, if you count expansively.  My relationship with science fiction is very strange.  I grew up reading it and think of myself as liking it.  But I have not yet found the place in contemporary SF I really like to sit.  Of the 9 SF books I read this year, the two that I really liked were the ones from the 20th century : The Scarlet Plague and The Man in the Maze.  The former is a forgotten book that Joshua Glenn wisely released in his Radium Age series, the latter a forgotten book that Johan de Jong wisely made me borrow.

Best book I read:  The Pale King, no surprise.  And it wasn’t close.  Malcolm is the runner-up.

Worst book I read:  The Passage, I think, even though on average this book was not bad.  The first 300 pages were kind of great, centered on the question:  how would it feel to watch the world be destroyed if the world were already kind of destroyed to start with?  But then after that there are 700 pages of “old West in the future” and people riding around shooting at monsters.  I felt betrayed.  This is my quarrel with contemporary SF.  So many ideas, so much promise, and then the last 500 pages are always people riding around and shooting at monsters!  Sometimes they’re running or flying instead of riding, but always the shooting, always the monsters.

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The Scarlet Plague

I really like world-destroyed-by-disease novels and I really like Jack London and I was really happy to learn that Jack London wrote a world-destroyed-by-disease novel, The Scarlet Plague, which you can buy here.  It’s a quick, really enjoyable read, but not without heft.

London is really interested in the tension between the cultivated and the uncultivated.  The narrator, a former professor of English literature at Berkeley, longs for the civilized life of the past, but recognizes that cultivation and refinement breed weakness, while the oppression visited on the impoverished masses of pre-plague America had generated a cruel strength.  Here’s the vegetal version:

“With my horse and dogs and pony, I set out. Again I crossed the San Joaquin Valley, the mountains beyond, and came down into Livermore Valley. The change in those three years was amazing. All the land had been splendidly tilled, and now I could scarcely recognize it, ‘such was the sea of rank vegetation that had overrun the agricultural handiwork of man. You see, the wheat, the vegetables, and orchard trees had always been cared for and nursed by man, so that they were soft and tender. The weeds and wild bushes and such things, on the contrary, had always been fought by man, so that they were tough and resistant. As a result, when the hand of man was removed, the wild vegetation smothered and destroyed practically all the domesticated vegetation.”

And the human version, which comes a little earlier in the book:

“In the midst of our civilization, down in our slums and labor-ghettos, we had bred a race of barbarians, of savages; and now, in the time of our calamity, they turned upon us like the wild beasts they were and destroyed us.”

But London complicates this story.  In a typical apocalypse book, the reader would be invited to reflect on the personal qualities of the narrator that led him to be among the few survivors.  London insists we do no such thing:

“In the morning I was alone in the world. Canfield and Parsons, my last companions, were dead of the plague. Of the four hundred that sought shelter in the Chemistry Building, and of the forty-seven that began the march, I alone remained—I and the Shetland pony. Why this should be so there is no explaining. I did not catch the plague, that is all. I was immune. I was merely the one lucky man in a million—just as every survivor was one in a million, or, rather, in several millions, for the proportion was at least that.”

I think this makes the book more interesting.  All the narrator’s learning and culture doesn’t help him — but it doesn’t hurt him either.  He is no braver, no cleverer, no wiser, and no stronger than his fallen companions.   London’s plague isn’t a cleansing flood that kills a sick society and reduces the species to its ablest core.  It’s a random sample.  And the civilization that humans will build after the plague won’t be any better than what came before.  Or worse.  It will be the same:

“The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal types—the priest, the soldier, and the king. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of all the ages. Some will fight, some will rule, some will pray; and all the rest will toil and suffer sore while on their bleeding carcasses is reared again, and yet again, without end, the amazing beauty and surpassing wonder of the civilized state.”

We are the plague, and the plagued.

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The superintendent’s writing awards, Adam Ostrow, and me

I’m at my parents’ house, looking through Adventures in Writing, a collection of winners of the 1987 Superintendent’s Writing Awards from the Montgomery County Public Schools. My 10th grade self is represented here by a very earnest essay on The Glass Menagerie (big finish: “Either way, the contrast provides an effective comment on society.”)

I flipped through the table of contents hoping to find famous writers of today; the biggest name I came across was Adam Ostrow, now editor-in-chief of Mashable, then a sophomore at Gaithersburg High School. His story, “Insignificance in the Two Thousand Nineties,” does a pretty good job with the future — his late 21st century teen views images of new clothes on his computer and pays for them via direct deduction from his bank account. When he needs to arrange some travel, he “telecomms” to make a plane and hotel reservation. Count against Ostrow that the reservation is from Pan Am. And it’s to the moon.

Best line in this story: “Just then a robot came in with what was to be his lunch.”

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Paragraphs: Zadie Smith and Raymond Chandler

As mentioned, I’m reading Zadie Smith’s first novelWhite Teeth; it’s excellent, though I liked On Beauty better. But nothing in On Beauty really approaches the sustained uproariousness of the Chalfen section of White Teeth, which I’ve just now gotten to. The Chalfens are an idealized secular-liberal “modern” British family of the 1980s, a sort of updated version of the family Jane wishes herself half-into at the end of Half Magic. Through a bit of business involving a mishandled joint, the two working-class teens at the center of the book end up spending every Tuesday afternoon in the Chalfens’ enthusiastic company.

Oh, to have the pitch control to write this:

“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” pleaded Joyce. “Oscar really wants you to stay. Oscar loves having strangers in the house, he finds it really stimulating. Especially brown strangers! Don’t you, Oscar?”

“No, I don’t,” confided Oscar, spitting in Irie’s ear. “I hate brown strangers.”

“He finds brown strangers really stimulating,” whispered Joyce.

Also, via MetaFilter commenter George_Spiggott, Raymond Chandler in 1953 does his impression of science fiction:

“I checked out with K 19 on Aldebaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was ice cold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”

Classic.

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Reader survey: what is the great American nerd novel?

This year’s Pulitzer winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a candidate; it begins with an epigraph from Galactus, and there’s hardly a page without a nod to Marvel Comics, Tolkien, or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Like the many Spanish words and phrases, the nerd content isn’t translated. The Spanish you can usually work out from context — but if you’re a little shaky on the Witch-king of Angmar, or what it means to have an 18 charisma, or if you’re familiar with the Watcher’s role monitoring the timestreams from the Blue Area of the Moon but forgot that his given name is Uatu, you’re going to miss a lot.

Austin Grossman‘s Soon I Will Be Invincible, subject of this blog’s inaugural post, is in the running too — it’s not really a book about nerds, like Oscar Wao, but a book which inhabits a nerdy genre, the brooding supervillain autobio, and makes an honest novel out if it.

I don’t think the answer has to has anything to do with SF — one can engage with the soul of the nerd without raising the topic of hit points or Darkseid. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is devoted to the nerd’s characteristically fervent attention to minutiae (in this case, the minutiae belong to a fantasically detailed baseball simulation played with dice.) And probably no one has ever treated the toxic fury of the nerd gaze, directed at the jock, as well as Frederick Exley did in the USC sections of A Fan’s Notes.

You could also give extra points for novels especially beloved by nerds — who wins in that case, Neal Stephenson? When I was a young nerd it would have been Douglas Adams by parsecs and maybe that’s still true.

More nominations in comments, please!

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Engine Summer and Godel’s Theorem

I read a lot of science fiction as a kid, but somehow managed to miss out on John Crowley until this year. I started with the Hugo-winning Little Big, which is beloved by both Harold Bloom and Crooked Timber; that must say something. It’s a beautifully written and grand fantasia about fairies, architecture, and (I think) the decay of urban America in the early 1980s, when it was written. Around page 400 I started wondering how Crowley was possibly going to wrap up all the mysteries and stories in a satisfying way; and he didn’t, quite. When I complained to Steve about this, he told me that I should have read Engine Summer instead, because it’s small and perfect. So I did — and it is!

There’s some lesson here about short novels. Many of the ideas in Engine Summer reappear in Little, Big, and you can see why; in the earlier book things are done so gracefully, so concisely, and with so much left unmentioned that Crowley must have felt he hadn’t exhausted the material. And he hadn’t; there’s lots of terrific stuff in Little, Big that the shorter book doesn’t have room for. But grace, concision, and the presence of the unmentioned are serious virtues, not to be lightly discarded. This might be even more true in science fiction than elsewhere.

Here’s a quote — this doesn’t show off Crowley at anything like his best, but I wanted to point out that it appears to be a reference to the work of Godel, not something you find in every novel.

She came and sat by me again. “The gossips know, now, after many years of searching, that it can’t be read past Gate, not packed all together; and if Great Knot Unraveled is the whole set, then Great Knot Unraveled can never be read.”

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that it’s no longer any use? Since you know that? It doesn’t, does it?”

“Oh no,” she said. “No, no. It will be a long time before we have learned everything there is to learn even from Little Knot. But.. well. It seemed, when the System was first being truly searched, in St. Olive’s time, it seemed that .. it seemed there was a promise, that one day it would be seen all together, and answer all questions. Now we know it won’t, not ever. When that was first understood, there were gossips who broke up their Systems, and some who left Belaire; that was a sad time.”

If you want Steve’s thoughts on SF unmediated through me, he assesses Philip K. Dick in the July 2008 London Review of Books.

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The future belongs to colds

Mrs. Q, CJ, and I are all battling a vicious cold, the champion of all the rhinoviri locked in Darwinian struggle at CJ’s daycare. We’ve all been sick for a week with no recovery in sight.

This made me think of a good conceit for a science-fiction movie. It’s easy to imagine evolutionary pressure producing a species of endemic, non-lethal, antibiotic-resistant bacteria that colonize the upper respiratory tract. In other words, in the future, everyone has a cold for their entire life.

It’s actually interesting to think about what the effects on society would be. Some would be trivial (boxes of tissue everywhere; increased popularity of very strong-smelling and spicy food, the only kind people can really taste; renaissance of instrumentals in pop music since singing has become essentially impossible) and some serious (increased infant mortality, easier spreading of more dangerous bugs with the whole population coughing all the time.)

Any more?

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These aren’t the tats you’re looking for

Sitting in Panera reading through my first Ph.D. student’s thesis draft. A very tattooed young man just walked in. You know what you never see in science fiction movies? Old people with lots of tattoos. But in 2050, there are going to be a lot of such people, right?

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