November Reading Roundup

Pretty productive reading month here. The highlight was discovering the work of Peter Watts: Blindsight, as I mentioned before, is fantastic, and anyone with any interest in the cutting edge of SF should hop to it. I also read his short story “The Island” (pdf available here) — like Blindsight it’s just paragraph after paragraph of ideas skillfully, thrillingly dramatized. Watts is sometimes called a pessimist because things generally don’t end all that well for his characters, but both Blindsight and “The Island” earn their downbeat endings.

mouthriverbeesI read about half of both Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others and Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, both from the heroic Small Beer Press. The writing styles are very different. Chiang has an almost naive “non-style,” eschewing any sort of ornament, while Johnson’s style feels like it’s squarely in the mainstream literary world — many of her characters have the ennui and aimless passivity of most everyone in the typical New Yorker story. Both of them are excellent writers, though; especially strong are Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and “Understand,” and Johnson’s title story and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” Her alien sex story “Spar” is disturbing and batshit crazy in the best way.

No fault of theirs I didn’t read all the stories in either book, incidentally — I usually like to come back to a book of short stories later, so that each story gets its full due and doesn’t start to blend in with the others.

kvanttivarasThe most disappointing read this month was definitely Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. I was interested in this one for the Finnish angle, and I do like SF that limits its setting to our solar system — Rajaniemi’s friend and blurber Charles Stross does a great job of this in Saturn’s Children. And the first few chapters of The Quantum Thief (the ones that secured Rajaniemi a nice three-book deal) have a great, desperate feel with chunky hard SF details: strangelet bombs and induced combat autism and utility fogs and proteomic computers and antimatter engines. You can see why Tor would be excited by those chapters. But the story very quickly devolves into unthrilling reversals of fortune and other painfully recognizable narrative turns — Rajaniemi has obviously internalized Hollywood story beats to a fault. The characters are ultra-thin, tending to fall into various categories of wish fulfillment: they’re pretty much all suave and/or badass and/or fuckable. There’s also a lot — I mean a lot — of this sort of dialogue:

‘I have been thinking.’
‘Really?’
He gives her a reproachful look.
‘I’m allowed to tease you,’ she says. ‘That’s how these things work.’

Pretty meager stuff. The gevulot concept is great, I will say, a sort of ubiquitous, immediately accessible privacy utility used on Mars. It’s quite well portrayed. Also, there’s a certain reveal near the end, regarding the nature of the Oubliette, that is skillfully done. Overall, Rajaniemi has some interesting ideas but the actual form and feel of the novel are just not there yet.

atmomI re-read H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I say ‘re-read’ but the last time was in my teens when I went on a major Lovecraft kick, tearing through Bantam’s 80’s reissues with the lovely, creepy Michael Whelan covers. I have fond memories of reading these and I still don’t mind Lovecraft’s florid style, though it’s hard to argue with anyone who can’t stand it — it’s there, everywhere, all the time. And boy howdy the guy sure liked his fetid ichor; you can tell because of all the fetor and ichor. Incidentally I also read some short stories by Walter de la Mare this month — “Crewe” and “Missing,” both semi-horror stories where the taleteller tells the narrator more than he intends to — and came upon the following passage in “Missing”:

It was a foul outburst, due in part, I hope, to the heat; in part to the suffocating dehumanizing fœtor which spreads over London when the sun has been pouring down on its bricks and mortar as fiercely as on the bones and sands of some Eastern mud village.

So there was a fair amount of fetor/fœtor sloshing around this month.

Less fetid, but more squalid, was George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I really enjoy Orwell’s second-tier works, but I prefer Coming Up for Air to this one, mostly because the narrator of Coming Up for Air is such a cheerful boob. However if you’re a fan of pre-decimal British money, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is chock full of calculations of how many bob and quid of your bookseller’s assistant wages you can spare on cigarettes and still not die of starvation.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAnn Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was a pretty interesting, if uneven, debut SF novel. There’s a strong LeGuin influence, as confirmed by Leckie, particularly the icy setting and gender slippage from The Left Hand of Darkness. Leckie zigs where LeGuin zagged, so to speak, using feminine pronouns as the default where LeGuin used the masculine — though unlike The Left Hand of Darkness where gender is physiologically changeable month to month for the natives of Gethen, the Radch language in Ancillary Justice simply doesn’t differentiate between he and she. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when this one’s translated into Finnish, which also doesn’t differentiate pronoun gender; the slight tension in not knowing a character’s gender off the bat is quite effective, and whenever we find one out later it’s a bit of a thrill. For all I know, though, that thrill died out for Finnish readers long ago.

The first two thirds of Ancillary Justice are well done, with surprisingly assured pace and tone. Particularly strong were the scenes where the sentient ship and its ancillaries (human bodies all with the same consciousness as the ship) are having different conversations with different humans during moments of crisis. Leckie doesn’t line-break in these scenes to indicate the different conversations; she just plows through, and it’s a testament to her skill that just a little extra attention is needed to follow what’s happening, and that the extra effort feels rewarding to the reader.

The last third of the book is still enjoyable, but it’s definitely more careless than what went before, frantic rather than measured. This was somewhat the case with Blindsight as well — it feels like Leckie and Watts each didn’t quite trust their story enough, and so felt that the ending needed to be a drawn-out slew of action-packedness so that the reader would feel like their time spent reading had been worthwhile. Maybe Hollywood has infected us all; someday every film, even romantic comedies and E.M. Forster adaptations, will end with a massive alien attack on New York.

crace-jim-harvest-cover-022613-margI thought at first that Jim Crace’s Harvest, nominated this year for the Man Booker prize, had a trick up its sleeve. One of Crace’s previous novels was set in post-apocalyptic America; and Harvest seemed a bit cagey about its setting, as if it might be only ostensibly set in medieval England and gradually reveal itself to be taking place in the run-down post-oil agrarian future. But, no, my clogs were too clever — even though the year is never mentioned, we’re just in medieval England. In any case, it’s a short, fascinating study of how quickly even the sturdiest community can be corrupted and destroyed, either through commercial interests or sexual jealousy. The narrator, Walter Thirsk, watches as his farming village comes apart due to the influence of several visitors: a surveyor, a dislocated family from another village, the absentee landowner. It’s an earthy read — Crace, through Thirsk, dwells lovingly on the details and routines of farming life.

Like some of the other books I read this month, Harvest goes a little wobbly at the end, with fires and scatterings and rushings to and fro. The threads we’d most like to see tied up are left strewn about; some situations or conflicts needed and deserved more exploration. In this case, it could be seen as a structural choice — things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc., for the story just as for the village. But it almost feels more like absentmindedness, or a not-quite-solid sense of what the story itself demanded. Thankfully no alien invasion, though.

Finally, I finished Introducing Quantum Theory last night. It would be a stretch to say I understood it — actually it would be an outright lie to say I understood it. Who are we kidding? But at this point I’m just trying to get a fuzzy sense of the vocabulary and concepts there in order to lay the base, hopefully, for greater understanding in the future. I’m really in no hurry, right? It’s not like I have to teach a class on it next month or something.

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Quote #10

eri“Planets are the abusive parents of evolution. Their very surfaces promote warfare, concentrate resources into dense defensible patches that can be fought over. Gravity forces you to squander energy on vascular systems and skeletal support, stand endless watch against an endless sadistic campaign to squash you flat. Take one wrong step, off a perch too high, and all your pricey architecture shatters in an instant. And even if you beat those odds, cobble together some lumbering armored chassis to withstand the slow crawl onto land— how long before the world draws in some asteroid or comet to crash down from the heavens and reset your clock to zero? Is it any wonder we grew up believing life was a struggle, that zero-sum was God’s own law and the future belonged to those who crushed the competition?

The rules are so different out here. Most of space is tranquil: no diel or seasonal cycles, no ice ages or global tropics, no wild pendulum swings between hot and cold, calm and tempestuous. Life’s precursors abound: on comets, clinging to asteroids, suffusing nebulae a hundred lightyears across. Molecular clouds glow with organic chemistry and life-giving radiation. Their vast dusty wings grow warm with infrared, filter out the hard stuff, give rise to stellar nurseries that only some stunted refugee from the bottom of a gravity well could ever call lethal.”

– Peter Watts, “The Island

RIP Frederick Sanger

There’s a fascinating obituary for Frederick Sanger in today’s New York Times. If you’re at all interested in biochemistry, amino acids, or DNA sequencing it’s worth a read:

Dr. Sanger stayed on at Cambridge and soon became immersed in the study of proteins. When he started his work, scientists knew that proteins were chains of amino acids, fitted together like a child’s colorful snap-bead toy. But there are 22 different amino acids, and scientists had no way of determining the sequence of these amino acid “beads” along the chains.

Dr. Sanger decided to study insulin, a protein that was readily available in a purified form since it is used to treat diabetes. His choice of insulin turned out to be a lucky one — with 51 amino acids, insulin has a relatively simple structure. Nonetheless, it took him 10 years to unlock its chemical sequence.

His approach, which he called the “jigsaw puzzle method,” involved breaking insulin into manageable chunks for analysis and then using his knowledge of chemical bonds to fit the pieces back together. Using this technique, scientists went on to determine the sequences of other proteins. Dr. Sanger received the Nobel just four years after he published his results in 1954.

He later won a second Nobel for the DNA-decoding process that was named after him.

According to the obit he lived in Swaffham Bulbeck, surely in the Top Ten of English village names.

Finnish in Science Fiction

I’ve been interested in Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief for a while, but I’m only now getting around to reading it. Aside from the fact that it’s recent high-profile SF from a guy with amazing real-world science credentials, what really pushes my buttons is the Finnish connection.

flandry-of-terraFor me, Finland and SF have been long intertwined. When I was 14 I read Poul Anderson’s Flandry of Terra and spent a lot of time staring at Michael Whelan’s iconic cover, shown here. The guy pictured is obviously Dominic Flandry, but what really intrigued me was the crouching woman. Whatever icy planet they’re on, she’s an inhabitant of it (though I don’t remember the specifics of the story now) and 14-year-old me associated snowy climes with blonde inhabitants. So 14-year-old me wondered: what Earth culture would produce a lovely and exotic-looking young brunette like that?

It’s a silly question — but again, I was 14. In any case, something about her struck me as vaguely Lappish, and I had enough geographical awareness at that point to associate that with Finland. This was, to my memory, the first time I had given more than a passing thought to the Finns; but I was intrigued enough by the whole notion to check out Aina Rajanen’s Of Finnish Ways from the public library to learn more.

Basically, from the small seed of that cover image grew my fascination with Finland. A few years later, as part of an exchange program, I spent a summer living with the lovely Törmänen family in Kempele, a suburb of Oulu up near the crook of the Gulf of Bothnia. I had a great time, and though I haven’t been back since I’ve always wanted to return. But I married a woman who prefers the Mediterranean to the Baltic for her vacations (crazy hats!) and so haven’t quite had the chance.

My Finnish language skills were pretty basic, and still are — as most people know, it’s devilishly complicated, and unrelated to English or most other European languages (aside from Estonian and, distantly, Hungarian) and it has very little vocabulary recognizable to an English speaker. But I have a good enough handle on the language to be able to spot it wherever it pops up. For instance, in Philip José Farmer’s The Unreasoning Mask (a neglected SF classic, in my eyes) there’s a character named Nuoli who at one point exclaims “Jumala!” — nuoli being the Finnish word for arrow, and Jumala meaning God.

Aside from that, the only other Finnish in an SF work I’ve found is Dune, though it’s a bit disguised there. The name Harkonnen is very Finnish-looking — a vast number of Finnish names end with the distinctive -nen suffix. Looking around just now, I found a fascinating blog post about it — the closest Finnish name is Härkönen; a Finnish immigrant to North America would of course lose the umlauts upon arrival. The Dune wiki (which I didn’t know existed and will now probably spend hours browsing) points out that härkö is Finnish for ox, which is apparently the symbol of the Harkonnen family.

The other, even sneakier Finnish reference in Dune is the word Herbert uses for “poison” — as described in the book’s glossary:

CHAUMURKY (Musky or Murky in some dialects): poison administered as a drink.

The Finnish word for poison is myrkky — it seems too much of a coincidence given the Harkonnen naming. Basically Herbert was using Finnish for the nastiest things in the Dune universe, presumably as a sort of balance to the Arabic derivations common to the Fremen (interestingly, like Dune, The Unreasoning Mask also derives a lot of its terminology from Arabic, e.g. the alaraf drive that the living ships use to travel around).

There’s some pretty basic Finnish in The Quantum Thief: so far I’ve come across the names Mieli (mind) and Sydän (heart), a ship called Perhonen (butterfly), and some swear words. But it seems like Rajaniemi is intrigued by French the way I am by Finnish, mostly using French names for characters (his protagonist is called Jean le Flambeur, for God’s sake). So it looks like it’s up to me to, someday, introduce more expansive fennicization to the SF world.

Incidentally, my collection of Finnish-language learning material isn’t that big but in the world of private Finnish-language learning collections it’s probably unrivalled in its scope:

Autun Purser’s Fantastic Travel Destinations

7251_largeFive years ago when my wife and son and I visited London, one of the many, many highlights for me was the London Transport Museum. I’m not a huge transportation fanatic — I like trains and such as much as the next guy but it’s not the sort of thing I would seek out in most cities.

But I’ve always loved British transportation art and that day at the museum I racked up a £25 bill just buying postcards. I could (and did) spend hours browsing the LTM’s poster shop. Seriously, look at this stuff!

So the combination of that aesthetic with SF destinations means I’m pretty much the target demographic for Autun Purser’s Fantastic Travel Destinations. These are, to my mind, the best thing I could have on my walls, though it might be a bit of a wrestle getting my wife to agree to it. I love the London poster for The Day of the Triffids — the “Similar Destinations Include” section is a brilliant piece of mordant wit — but my wife would never agree to hanging a picture of a triffid hovering over a dead body:

london

More likely I’ll go with Ryhope Wood, which captures perfectly the feel of Robert Holdstock’s magnificently haunting Mythago Wood (which I need to re-read soon):

ryhopewood

And I’m seriously thinking of getting this one for my son’s room — The Stars My Destination (or Tiger, Tiger!) is one of his absolute favorites, earning at least one re-read:

the.nomad

Just perfect — hard to believe no one’s thought of doing it before. Check out Purser’s site for the full selection, there’s a ton of them. (h/t io9)

Nissley’s Book of Days

9780393239621_198On Monday night my buddy Tom Nissley, who’s been travelling the US to promote his book A Reader’s Book of Days, hosted a round of “Literary Jeopardy” in NYC. He did a little of this at his launch party at The Elliott Bay Book Co. here in Seattle, where I won a copy of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay collection Pulphead (which I haven’t had a chance to dip into yet).

There’s a great write-up of Monday’s event on The New Yorker’s books blog — I wish I could’ve been there for the “Wolf Wolfe Wolff Woolf” shenanigans. And the book is great, by the way: packed with both factual and fictional minutiae for every day of the year, it’s poignant, funny, and surprising. April 19, for example, which is the date of birth for one of my favorite writers, Richard Hughes (A High Wind in Jamaica) and date of death for both Lord Byron and one of my favorite all-round folks of all time, Charles Darwin, starts off with the following two entries:

1854 Henry David Thoreau declined a neighbor’s offer of a two-headed calf: “I am not interested in mere phenomena.” [Note: Joanna Neborsky’s illustration of the calf in question is pretty adorable.]

1862 Lionel Tennyson, age eight, explained to a visitor to the household, Lewis Carroll, the conditions under which he would show Carroll some poems he had written: Carroll must play chess with him, and must allow Lionel to give him “one blow on the head with a mallet.”

Just the index alone is worth the price — the entry for “animals,” for example, works its way from badgers to yeti.

Also check out Tom’s blog The Ephemeral Firmament; the guy can find the heartbreaking undercurrents in just about anything.

Quote #9

tess“The narrow lane of stubble encompassing the field grew wider with each circuit, and the standing corn was reduced to smaller area as the morning wore on. Rabbits, hares, snakes, rats, mice, retreated inwards as into a fastness, unaware of the ephemeral nature of their refuge, and of the doom that awaited them later in the day when, their covert shrinking to a more and more horrible narrowness, they were huddled together, friends and foes, till the last few yards of upright wheat fell also under the teeth of the unerring reaper, and they were every one put to death by the sticks and stones of the harvesters.”

Thomas Hardy, happy as the day is long in Tess of the d’Urbervilles