Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

*Spoilers Below*

Writing with a main character on the autism spectrum is a tricky path, one that I feel like I've seen many people stumble off, falling down on amusing or adorable instead of giving their subjects any kind of complexity or autonomy. These characters need to be jolted out of their routines and it's hilarious as they learn to do more. They feel like books written for neurotypical readers, with autism less a different way of thinking than a prop in a comedy.  (The more I think about The Rosie Project, the more I am bothered.)

I was worried that reading Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark would be the same sort of experience. What I found here was much richer and deeper, and while I am not sure what readers on the spectrum would make of the ending, I at least felt that the book as a whole took its main character seriously, allowing him complexity, keeping the autism in the picture while not using that to strip him of any further humanity.

This is not "the story of an autistic man," this is the story of Lou, an autistic man who has a job, lives independently, fences in his spare time, and while Moon is definitely not portraying him as just like everyone else, he has found an equilibrium, more or less, with the world around him. More than that, he is capable of thinking about how he thinks, about how he experiences the world, capable of analyzing not only patterns, but eventually, issues beyond those patterns. It's a slow process, but by meticulously thinking his way through, he is capable to making connections that, it sounds like, many of the people around him never thought he would be capable of.

Of course, the world he lives in is not particularly kind to the non-neurotypical, and in the world Moon has posited, this may be exacerbated by Lou's knowledge that he is more or less part of the last generation of those with autism, as he got the best help growing up, but now, in his world, there are medical techniques to "cure" autism in babies and very young children. There will not be a generation after him, but still, he has to live his life. Then a new breakthrough makes it possible for he himself, in his thirties, to go through a similar treatment. Is his autism easily extricable from who he is? Will this, in essence, kill one person to create another with the same face and a more usual brain?

It doesn't sit entirely well, the eventual decision Lou makes to take the treatment. Initially, the company he works for, and more specifically, his boss, wants to force he and their other autistic employees into enrolling in the same company's medical experiment, and that part is so uncomfortable. Then the coercion is taken away, and it's his decision, coloured, of course, by recent attacks on him by someone who can't stand the thought that someone they think of as defective is functioning better in society than they are. (Wow, that section is powerful about how we only want to deal with disability if we can pity it.)

While Lou's journey to that decision is done convincingly, it's still an ending that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Particularly given some of what I've heard from people with autism talking about who they are as people and their own perspectives on difference.

Still, coming from someone who is as neurotypical as I am, this is by far the best rendition I've seen, and the story is both disquieting and perceptive, even if something still doesn't feel quite right.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

I have never read a Clive Cussler book. It's just not my normal sort of fiction, although I have nothing in particular against it. Reading Jack McDevitt's Coming Home, though, I kept thinking that this book was an awful lot like what I would expect a Clive Cussler book to be, just set in the future, with space-hopping treasure hunters and antiquarians, instead of being bounded by the confines of the Earth.

In this case, the fabulous lost treasure the main character, Alex, and his assistant Chase is hunting are artifacts of early spaceflight, lost in the wake of climate change and social disruption on Earth. They think they might have a lead, but at the same time, they're waiting to see if a spectacular rescue can be made for a spaceship on which time is more or less standing still as it fades from view and back again. One of the passengers is Alex's uncle Gabe, trapped there for, from our perspective, eleven years, and from his perspective, a couple of weeks.

I complain frequently about notions of history that fall into one of two cardinal errors - that the people of the past were utterly alien, or that the people of the past were exactly like us, just with funny hats. Both are arguably wrong.

This, however, is a science fiction book that that falls further into the second of the two errors than pretty much any book I have ever seen. Apparently if we jump several thousand years into the future, technological abilities will have changed, but people will be exactly the same. We'll have the same arguments about artifacts. Daytime talk shows will be the same. The mannerisms and speech patterns are the same. Vacationing appears to be exactly the same, except some of the cruise ships are interstellar. Academia seems to be the same. Politics.

Everything has changed, but it seems that nothing has changed - every technological change has resulted in something exactly like what we have today. If that's your theory, you can go for it, but it's a bit jarring. I kind of figure some things would be different, you know?

This also brings me to a common difficulty in science fiction, one for which I'm not sure there's a great solution. Whenever characters want to refer to something in the past, writers almost always end up giving us two examples we know, then one they make up, just to make it seem like their 31st century folks aren't obsessed with us for no reason. On the one hand, if you're trying to make an analogy, you want it to be understood by your readers. On the other, it is sometimes jarring when this repeatedly means that everything they want to illustrate happened in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, with one fictional 25th century one thrown in.

But even the thrown-in one can be a bit jarring, because we don't know to what it's referring. From the first two examples, we can pretty much figure it out, but to my ear, it always rings a little funny. Funny as in amusing, not as wrong. You know, Genghis Khan, Donald Trump, and Grand Marshal Polkaroo of the Polka Dot Door Galaxy. (Look, I don't know what Polkaroo did, but to be in that company, it's got to have been bad, right?)

I truly don't know how to get beyond that as a problem. As long as people reach back for examples in the past to illustrate their futures, there may not be another way to do it. Still, it always jars me just a little. It's never enough to turn the tide on a book, but often enough to make me smile wryly at yet another attempt.

At any rate, I am a little staggered that a book in this series won a Nebula. I haven't read the one that did, but this is such a straightforward treasure hunting adventure that I can't imagine another in the same series being a whole lot more literary.

But if what you're looking for is action-adventure that reads like it could be happening in the here-and-now, but there are spaceships, this wouldn't be a bad bet.

Friday, 17 February 2017

War Dogs by Greg Bear

I think Greg Bear is at his best when he's going for a real mindfuck. I mean, this writer can mess with the brains of his readers like nobody's business, pulling them down uncomfortable and compelling paths. As a result, I think I am always slightly disappointed when he does something more mainstream. The last Bear I read (I think it was him, and hopefully I'm not confusing him with another author) was a fairly straightforward thriller. It was fine, but not idea-rich.

I sort of feel the same way here, although this is more straightforwardly SF than the last book I read by this author. This feels like it's on the outskirts of the Bear territory I like the most, or to be more precise, it feels like a prequel to the main event. I suspect there are more books coming, but if there are, this might have served best as something written after the meat of the story to flesh out the background, or to have been shortened and added to a book that got into what seems to be the good stuff yet to come.

What we have is a book set in the medium-near future - not the next couple of years, but not a whole ton beyond that. A group of aliens that I don't believe most of humanity has ever seen showed up and started to share a lot of marvellous technology, outlawed the word "fuck," and then, when we were dependent on the dribs and drabs of knowledge they gave out, dropped the bombshell that they were more intergalactic refugees than wise Guru masters, and needed us to fight their war, like, now.

That puts humans up against the Antagonists on the vast sandy plains of Mars, and they likewise don't know anything about what the Antagonists look like or want, but they are killing and being killed by them in great numbers. The main character is a "Skyrine" (my husband hated that name, arguing that a Marine is a Marine is a Marine), dropped onto Mars with a group of others during a firefight that leaves most of the men they travelled with dead.

At this point, I was griping a little about what seemed to be a narrative choice to assert women were treated exactly the same in the Skyrines but not have any female characters, except for a beautiful Martian settler (called a Muskie, in honour of Elon Musk. Muskie? Might have been slightly different) for the main Marine to fall for.

Then a whole squad of women Skyrines show up, and I was a little less annoyed.

This is all told in flashbacks from a time when the main character has returned to Earth, apparently burdened with a secret big enough to come back under another Skyrine's identity.  He tries try to drop off the radar immediately, waiting for contact from another Skyrine. This is emphasized every time we come back to the book's present, which raises expectations pretty damn high for the reveal.

When it comes, it's a bit disappointing. It's not a bad reveal, but it doesn't seem to match the level of expectation created by the structure - and worse, it's a reveal that really only means something when it's explored instead of just dropped as an answer. So, as I said, if this is the starting book of a series, it may get better from here, but this feels a lot like spinning wheels before the story, and then closing the last page just as the journey actually gets underway.

It's too bad. This books is fairly good, but there is the promise of so much more, and hopefully that better will be forthcoming and not given as short shrift as we see here.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

I don't usually post quotes from modern SF/F books. I do it all the time when I review laughably bad old science fiction, but most of what's getting published these days does not often include lines that make me shake my head and wonder about my own damn sanity.

Then I read this "seduction" dialogue from Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora. The unidentified character is female.

"What about sex on the beach, eh? Right out in the sun? You people must do that!"
"Yes," he says with a little smile, and rolls over onto his stomach, perhaps modestly. "You have to be sure not to get sand in certain places. But, you know, it's mostly something we do out here at night."
"How come? It's a public beach, isn't it?"
"Well, yes. But it doesn't sound like you mean what I mean when you say public."
"I thought public meant it was yours, that you could do what you want."
"I guess, yeah. But being public also means you don't do private things here."
"I think you should just do what you want! And I'd like to jump you right here and now."

I sent this lovely little tidbit (can KSR write women characters or what?) to my husband, and he promptly declared that this was a literary offence worthy of throwing the book across the room and refusing to read another word. It was, however, in the last chapter, so I forged on with the last few pages. You see, most of the human dialogue and interaction up to this was not great, but not this bad. Okay, yes, it was stilted. Okay, yes, most of the female characters were irrationally and irritatingly sure of their own position to the point of punching. And yes, no one in this book had ever heard of compromise. And no, they didn't really sound like people as I have known them.

On the other hand, most of the book is narrated by the AI of a ship, so...there's that?  (Okay, actually, that part I mostly enjoyed. I mean, I didn't love it, but it didn't grate like his human characters do, particularly when they're female and monofocused on something.)

This is a book all about how awful generation ships are and how they're child abuse and how they could never work. (Even though in his own book, half the people on the generation ship at the end of the voyage decide to stay and seem to think the trip was worth it. We're just stuck with the other half.)

I mean, I suppose it's fine to write a book about how hard generation ships would be to accomplish successfully, and even how hard the task at the other end would be. But this book feels just as sure of its conclusions as its characters are, and the real answer is, truly, that we don't know. We haven't even remotely tried, so choosing to believe that anywhere we went, no matter how Earthlike, there would be deadly dangers, microbes, or prions waiting to kill us, and that we can literally only thrive in the incubator of Earth, well, that's the author's choice. It's another cynical and negative one, and we all know how much I'm loving those types of books these days.

But really, Robinson is not getting any better at writing people, and really should stay away from sex scenes, because dear lord, that is one of the least sexy things I've ever read in my life. (Also, on the generation ship where she grew up, people seem to have lived in single-family mostly dwellings, with clothing customs and not much if any public nudity or sex, so there are so many reasons why that makes NOOOOOOOO sense.)

Also, and this is coming from a couple of books of his, Robinson seems to posit worlds in which people are even worse about helping with mental health issues that we are today, and we're pretty shitty today. I mean, this isn't the one of the Mars books where a character's psychiatrist tells another character all about her childhood sexual abuse because he thinks it'll help the other character get close to her, and has no regard for confidentiality. But it is a situation where the returning generation ship characters to Earth have huge issues with agoraphobia, anxiety, and depression, and there appears to not only be no help for them, but no concept that there could be anyone out there who could help them work through those issues.

Apparently technical science can progress, but nothing humanistic can exist....

I really didn't like this one. I am about at the end of my rope with KSR. I've read five of his books, and at their best they've been about 50% interesting and 50% irritating, and in several (this included), tipped way more towards the irritating end of the scale. Unfortunately, I know he's got at least one more that was nominated for a Hugo, so I'll probably choke it down in my quest to read all Hugo nominees.

Monday, 6 February 2017

How It Is by Samuel Beckett

Some books just seem designed to make you feel obtuse. I mean, I flatter myself that I'm a fairly perceptive reader, but then I get into the realms of the very weird, and don't know what I'm supposed to make of them. I tend to start off feeling like it's probably just me. I'm not smart enough to get it. I'm not educated in analyzing this type of English literature. I start off assuming that the book is probably better than I feel it is, because I don't get it, and that might mean the deficiency is in me.

The best antidote for this I know is to talk to my husband, who has a Master's in English Literature and Creative Writing, and has absolutely no patience for books that think you need to have those degrees in order to really get them. To him, opaqueness is not a virtue or a marker of quality.

I always feel much better about it after talking to him.

In many ways, this discussion always reminds me of a section of Ken Burn's Jazz, where someone is talking about Ornette Coleman, and how you have to study to get what Coleman's doing, that it's not supposed to be something someone could just listen to and get. And then there's the moment where Branford Marsalis calls that a load of crap.

Which isn't to say that I want books to be perfectly easy, either. I like twistiness, I like having to work a bit, and I thoroughly enjoy when I get things on another level because I'm lucky enough and have taken the time to ground myself in either the wider world of classic literature, or the specific work of an author. It's a lovely icing on the cake, to feel like I'm in the know.

But it can't be the cake. I mean, really. If your work can't be read and appreciated by people unless they're one of the few to do a doctorate in your specific work, have you succeeded?

As you may have guessed, I found How It Is rather opaque. Because it's Samuel Beckett, I'm inclined to duck my head and say that it's me, and maybe it is me, but it is dense and difficult, eschewing punctuation and easy meanings.

(Also, what the hell is it with authors getting rid of punctuation? Do they think it makes things sound more natural, like punctuation is a fetter put upon us by the Man? Do they not realize that the goddamn point of punctuation is to mimic the patterns of human speech in ways that make sentences more readable? We punctuate as we talk ALL THE FUCKING TIME. A comma is a way to capture a certain way of pausing, a period a full glottal stop. They come from speech, they are not arbitrarily imposed upon it.)

I read this book at what felt like a gallop, not knowing where to pause or stop or anything, and that frequently meant I had no idea what I'd just read, and only some of the time did I have the willpower to go back and figure out what was just said. I can do that on occasion, but not for every paragraph on every page. It may be a slim book, but I'm not putting that much work into it.

It's not that there's nothing here, but there is no real plot, no real characters, and the prose is so dense as to be almost unreadable. It feels like a work that is written to be inaccessible, without appealing to any of the reasons you might choose to read a book.

As a work on human alienation and cruelty to each other, well, it's kind of arbitrary. The narrator rolls around in the mud, sometimes encountering other humans. Sometimes he's the victim, and cruelly treated by the man who spoons him (and stabs him in the butt with a corkscrew, or maybe that's something he does to others, but I think it's both.) Sometimes he's the tormentor and for some reason can't speak, so must resort to cruelty to tell the person he's spooning what to do. Everyone appears to be male, although the word cunt is used really quite a lot.

For a while, I thought this might be about God's relationship to humans, without being able to tell them what to do, having to resort to cruel goads. But then I wasn't so sure. It's just a weird set-up, and I don't understand why the tormentors can't talk, and the idea of the world as a mud pit we all roll around in and are cruel to and abused by others I get, but...is there more?

Friday, 3 February 2017

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

*Spoilers Below*

I really disliked this book. Like, a lot. I tried to get into it, I tried to find it charming and delightful, as so many of the blurbsters seem to have. In the end, it drove me crazy almost end to end. For every moment where I gave a slight smile, there were many more where I was nearly incoherent with irritation.

First of all, for all that she's in the title, the tortoise is kind of superfluous. Sure, Audrey's worried about her tortoise for a while, but then she gets worried about the mouse, and if it weren't for the occasional turtle-POV chapters, she'd utterly drop out of the narrative. Worse, the turtle's narrative voice and Audrey's narrative voice are pretty much precisely the same. The same! A turtle! If you can't make a turtle sound different from a person, then at very least don't change narrative voice. At the very fucking least.

Also, does the tortoise add a lot to the story? Other than letting us know that no matter how much we're supposed to believe Audrey is deeply attached to things, out of sight is out of mind? Or that she can only single-mindedly worry about one thing at a time? I mean, for the latter half of the book, it's like she doesn't even remember she has a tortoise, when the back cover makes it sound like this is some tortoise-separation-and-reunion romp.

But that's all fairly minor. Where I got really aggravated was the sheer inconsistency of the main character. It felt like the author didn't have a good handle on her most of the time, and we veer back and forth between not knowing simple words and yet knowing the word "mullioned." Between being entirely resistant to change and acting out when change comes along, to jetting off to Europe with no particular plans, hiking, falling in the love, moving to the U.S. and getting along just fine. From being able to handle the Tube in London to being stymied by the idea of fog.

It is repeatedly said that Audrey has a low IQ. We don't know what that means, but whatever it means, it's entirely inconsistent, and worse, mostly gets used as mental handicap prop comedy. Look, this book doesn't need to be dire and depressing, but it does need to use that idea for more than ha-has that she gets words wrong and ideas in her head that she pursues with no regard for the outcome.

Not to mention how aggravated I was by the plotline with her father's lover. Look, the moment we got into the dynamics of the family between Audrey, her father, and her uncle Thoby, my brain went, "well, obviously the father and Uncle Thoby are lovers, so this is really pretty much her two fathers." But then the book was so insistent and so insistent and so insistent that he was really her father's brother that I wasn't sure. Of course, then when it gets revealed it was her father's lover who had lived with them and helped raise her over a period of time over a decade, I was just...annoyed.

Mostly because, why was it a secret in the first place? Who were they hiding it from? Audrey takes it in stride with nary a blink. Even if she had reacted more strongly, telling her who the man who was living with her and her father really was instead of trying to pass him off as an uncle just doesn't make any sense. Why would her father feel like he had to hide that at home? He doesn't seem to have a lot of close friends where they live in Newfoundland, and certainly no one we feel would react badly if they found out. Audrey doesn't care. His family overseas seem a little weirded out, but it seems as much by the whole "passing the guy off as Uncle Thoby" when Uncle Thoby is an actual person who exists, than by the fact that their son and brother is gay.

Honestly, even if Audrey has a low IQ, explaining to her that the charming letter she wrote to an airplane about it not crashing was answered by a man in England who her father struck up a correspondence with and then fell in love with, and then that man came to live with them and was a warm, nurturing second father...this doesn't seem to be something you couldn't do! Particularly since they try not to let Audrey by limited by her IQ, which seems not so much to be low as selectively low, when the author thinks it would be amusing.

It just makes NO FUCKING SENSE. And then, worse, when Audrey's father dies, "Uncle Thoby" goes back to England without even saying goodbye. Just think about that for a moment. I know he's grief stricken. I am sympathetic. But to leave behind your more-or-less adopted daughter WITHOUT SAYING GOODBYE after her father dies suddenly would be cruel even if the daughter was smart as a whip! It's an awful, horrible thing to do to anyone at any time, and even if you're struggling with your drinking, you fucking say goodbye! Or something! That the narrative doesn't seem to realize that this is one of the most cruel things I've ever read, leaving a grieving daughter all alone with no supports...JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. This is not charming. It is not delightful.

In summation, this book bugged the fuck out of me. I was never charmed, or delighted. I saw the twist coming from the first time I met the guy, but fuck, I'm not about to forgive him. Everyone seems to act arbitrarily to create false tension, and what Audrey is and isn't capable of changes from second to second.

And the tortoise is fairly pointless, even if her chapters are probably less irritating than the book as a whole.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

This is the third Michael Chabon book I've read. I absolutely adored The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I found Mysteries of Pittsburgh okay, but not great. However, when I recently punched Jo Walton's Farthing into NoveList, looking for a "read-alike," this is what came up. In general, I haven't been overly impressed with the read-alikes - they tend to get some of the same broad strokes, while generally the books are unuttterably different from the book they're supposed to be like.

It's a fairly strong example of Roger Ebert's axiom that it's not "what it is about, but how it is about it." I always believed that, but these recommendations have been more proof.

However, while I didn't fall in love with the last two read-alikes for books I loved, this time the comparison was not only apt, the book I read as a result was an utter delight. They are similar in that they're both alt-history and deal, in greater or larger part, with Jewishness. (Chabon more, Walton as part of a constellation of issues.)

The Yiddish Policeman's Union adds to the alternate history a hard-boiled noir detective novel. Complete with a detective who just can't let a case go, and a suitably twisty story and resolution. I was a little surprised at how well these two went together, but I was engrossed in the mystery, and the backdrop and larger politics gave it more heft.

The book is set in Alaska, where, after the fall of Israel in 1947, the United States government gave Jewish people a temporary homeland. After sixty years, though, it's about to revert to U.S. control, and the residents are uncertain as to their fate. They're a Jewish people who feel like they might be expelled from somewhere else, yet again. Or at very least, feel unwelcome in the city they built.

The main character is Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic and divorced police detective, who is woken up one night at the fleabag hotel at which he lives because there's been a murder in the building. Despite being told to let it go so that everything is neatly wrapped up when it gets handed back to the Americans, he of course, can't, and drags along his partner and cousin, Berko, a half-Native, half-Jewish man who is much more sensible and grounded than Meyer himself.

Berko's father ran intelligence services in Sitka with and without the U.S. government's approval, which led to his eventual release from service. The CIA and other agencies are not uninterested in the fate of Sitka and its inhabitants, and that becomes more and more clear, particularly when it comes to theories about how that might play into Messianic prophecies.

The dead man turns out to have been the estranged son of a prominent rebbe, head of a relatively closed Jewish community that dabbles heavily in organized crime. He was also reputed to have Messiah-like powers.

It's a twisty story, and I don't intend to go into it, but it's thoroughly satisfying, and the ways in which Chabon weaves together genre convention with alternate history and Jewish culture were always delightful. It might be 2008 in the book, but you can see easily Landsman sharing a cigarette with Bogart and shrugging before wandering off for another drink.