Category Archives: Literature

Posts about books and short stories. Usually things I have read recently.


I binged Neil Stevenson’s new[ish] novel, Seveneves, in the last 4 days while I should have been doing other things. I’ll call it my holiday. It isn’t my favorite of his (that would be Cryptonomicon followed by Snow Crash), and it isn’t my favorite genre piece, let’s call it long-perspective hard SciFi, but it’s damn good, and extremely fun. I have some thoughts that may be worth sharing.
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It’s Complicated

I finally finished danah boyd’s recent book It’s Complicated, and It’s one of the best pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in years.

I always feel there is a dramatic shortage of people equipped with both the appropriate formal methods in the social sciences and technological sophistication to make credible, meaningful, observations on technologically mediated culture. danah is reliably the best of them; I’ve read quite a number of her papers and articles, and the book is fuller and more readable than either.

Almost every passage roughly follows a pattern of statement, with attribution, relevant anecdote from original research, message. It is meticulously referenced (roughly a quarter of the book’s volume is appendices and references), which comes off a little academic, but anything less conscientious would end up being the kind of prognostication much of the book is trying to correct, and the actual writing comes off as far more pleasant and readable than it sounds. It is occasionally repetitive, but every time the repetition asserted itself, it was clearly a case of “I keep saying this over and over and they just don’t get it” rather than any sort of sloppy writing.

Occasionally, there are wistful references to the internet I grew up on; the author is about a decade older than I am, and grew up on the leading edge of the internet I was on the trailing edge of. The one where Ender’s Game (Locke and Demosthenes plot), True Names, and Ready Player One can happen, before the carpetbaggers arrived in force and (to quote the book) “When teens go online, they bring their friends, identities, and network with them.” situation asserted itself. I’m pretty sure my generation killed that different identity system, and buried it behind us (One of her early notable efforts was documenting the introduction of Friendster, which was in some ways the beginning of the end).

At least once a chapter, I found myself in vigorous agreement with some message being presented, enough that if there were people around when I was reading they could tell. The vast majority of the observations, while based in research into teens, also seem to generalize reasonably well to the behavior of most populations. The only unfortunate part is that I suspect the people making decisions about youth and technology who desperately need to hear what it has to say are not going to be the ones to read it.

Note that there is a PDF copy right on the author’s site, so even if you don’t want to go buy it, you can legitimately peruse it for free.

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The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of The Year Vol. 7

While I’m writing up things I’ve done recently, I finished this year’s edition of the Jonathan Strahan edited The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year collection. As in previous years I’ll mention the high points.
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The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of The Year Vol. 6

As happens every year around this time, I just finished this year’s edition of the Jonathan Strahan edited The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year collection. As in previous years I’ll mention the high points.

Where last year was heavy on the feminist lit, this year had a lot of “World building while world building” – stories about construction or changing a world that engage in a great deal of world building themselves. This suits me. As always, it also includes a few authors filling their niche stories, most egregiously, Cory Doctorow’s “Borrowing a title” trope this time was The Brave Little Toaster, and if you have read any Cory Doctorow pieces you already know the rest. It also had Strahan’s usual knack for picking winners; the Novella, Novelette, and Short Story Nebula winners for the year are all included (although except for the Novella, the winners were not the things I would have picked – What We Found over The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees? What were they thinking?).

For me there were two or three losers not worth mentioning and two real winners among 31 stories this time, with an overall solid showing. My favorite was, completely unsurprisingly, Kij Johnson’s high-profile story for the year, The Man who Bridged the Mist. It has the unremarkable premise of man leading a bridge construction project in a slightly fantastical, technologically unsophisticated world, and does amazing things with it. Checking online, it appears to have rightly won the Nebula award for Novellas this year.

My second favorite is much less typical – Catherynne M Valente’s White Lines on a Green Field. It is the traditional American Southwestern The Coyote and the Rabbit mythos cast by incarnation into a modern high-school, and by all rights I should have hated it. But it was fabulous for reasons I can’t quite pin down, and is very much worth reading simply for being something very, very different. I think I was more sympathetic to the “Let’s all get deeply invested in this athletic game some other people are playing” mentality reading that story than at any other time in my life, which was an interesting experience.

The other note is that Joss Whedon and/or Zack Snyder needs to be plopped down with a script for The Last Ride of the Glory Girls. It already has the aesthetic of Sucker Punch and Firefly rolled in with some nice Steampunk stylings, and I would watch the shit out of it as a moive.

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Ready Player One

Plans for the evening: Write some code I don’t really care for.
Actual activity for the evening: Binge the latter half of Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One.
As literature, it isn’t exactly stunning – the writing is standard mass market light reading fare (think Dan Brown, and that isn’t exactly complimentary) – but it is possibly the most glorious wallow through geek culture I’ve ever experienced. Geeky Movies. Geeky TV. Old video games. New video games. Geek issues. The Internet. All of it is, through a contrived but delightful plot device, the entire topic of the book. It picks up a huge amount of influence from predecessors in the style, especially Vernor Vinge’s True Names (One of my favorite novellas) and Cory Doctorow’s YA fiction (Little Brother is worth reading no matter how old you are) and makes self-aware references as nods to the things it borrows. The whole thing is extraordinarily masturbatory, to the point of occasionally damaging the storytelling and conception to reach through the forth wall, shake you and ask “Aren’t you excited too?!” but it is totally unashamed, and it is so much fun to just go with it (Enchantment of just going with it vs. disenchantment of thinking about it visible in the contrast of the review and comments here)

It’s also a little bit heartbreaking, because much of the promise the plot hinges on has been eroding away. It presumes that the copyrights on all the pop culture ephemera of the 1980s will have expired in 2044. Thanks to the concerted efforts of entities like Disney, that isn’t likely. Likewise, in an early chapter, it notes “People rarely used their real names online. Anonymity was one of the major perks of …” and goes on as though the “Avatars first, real identities (with physical baggage) for those you choose” model of the internet hasn’t been eroded is a matter of course, and hinges the bulk of the plot on that premise. It even accepts that various things online will need your real name and identity, but, like all such stories, posits that users will chose to go by their handle, and only use real names online where necessary. I grew up in that ‘net. My imagination is set in that ‘net. I want that ‘net back. But it just isn’t the way things are happening (this shame ray is pointed at Facebook and Google).

All that is to say, it isn’t high literature, it isn’t a worldview changer, but holy crap is it fun.

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Quote Widget

I has a quotes widget. Hopefully appearing over there -> in the right side bar. It’s picking from a selection which has been growing on my primary machine for years — I’ve been meaning to put a copy online since I accidentally wiped part of it out, then discovered my backup script hadn’t been saving dot files for months, and just found a suitable WordPress plugin to manage them. I think some of them are inappropriately long passages for the widget, but if I was interested in web design I wouldn’t be using the default WordPress theme tweaked only for functionality.

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Just read.

I just snapped out of one of those particularly idyllic afternoons, when I finished the remainder of this year’s Jonathan Strahan edited “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year” after I put it down a couple months ago and forgot about it. This was complimented with kwxx stream bringing me ridiculous but relaxing island pop. I hadn’t spent an afternoon just reading in too long.

I’ve picked up every previous volume of the collection and am going to post up a couple quick notes like I did for previous volumes in the preceding link, to give credit where due and make it so I can find them later.
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Millennium Trilogy

I’ve been reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in the evenings for the past few days, and completely understand the excitement they generated – the writing is EXCELLENT, with voices so distinct that the many unmarked jumps in the narrative are a feature rather than a problem (think Faulkner, but more accessible), and a wonderfully complicated story, with none of the “How many pages will it take me to correctly surmise the entire plot” property of other recent pop literature (I’m looking at you Dan Brown). Thus far they powerfully remind me of William Gibson’s Bigend books, which I really liked as well, but with vastly more, more complicated characters.
EDIT: Just after I wrote the post I found the first irritating mistake among the sea of intriguing gratuitous detail: One of the characters threatens another, very specifically, with a Glock. About 10 pages later, a third character takes the gun and “flicked off the safety”- Glocks conspicuously don’t have manual safeties. Interesting that that is the first detail in 370 pages that I noticed a problem with, particularly since many of the others were about computers and other topics I’m more familiar with.

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Zero History

(This should be spoiler free)
I just finished reading Zero History, slowly, both because I don’t have much time to do so, and because I was savoring it. That kind of writing is the closest thing to a religious experence those of us who don’t do faith get to have. Note that when I say “slowly” I mean “over the course of 2 weeks, since my copy arrived;” had I not been drawing it out it would have been more like two sittings.

Firstly,do NOT read it without first reading Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. A majority of the characters are common, and are thus introduced without preamble. There are also enritching references to the earlier novels throughout, including several major plot elements which are best left as surprises. On the topic of surprises, I hit an “Oh. Oh holy shit” 335 pages (of 404) in. The first time a book has surprised me in AGES, and it is a wonderful surprise that ties the Bigend trilogy together… and then, in standard Gibson style, entirely loses relevence to the narrative. The revelation is neatly enough laid that one could have figured it out prematurely, but is elegantly enough veiled to discourage such things. Imagine reading Dan Brown and NOT knowing the answer in the first few pages.

Gibson’s writing constantly pushes my vocabulary (which, as one might expect based on how much crap I get for my ordinary diction, is a very unusual thing), and my cultural knowledge (which, again, is unusual; I compulsively consume two news magizines and an unholy lot of Internet every week). I far prefer reading his more recent work with google in reach to fill in the gaps in both, something he has suggested is intentional, or at least approved of.

Looking at the whole trilogy, Pattern Recognition is still perhaps my favorite single novel, and I was disappointed when Spook Country came out, although that may be residual effects from my first attmept to read it in a codeine-induced haze; I literally got the book on the way back from having my wisdom teeth out. There is no disappointment with Zero History – it has all the marvelous locution, and fabulous collection of ethereally related plots that I read Gibson for. In fact, it makes Spook Country better, by tying all it’s plots into a greater system, making them more interesting than they were on their own, like the disinteresting constituent bits of a fascinating mechanical device. I don’t think Zero History stands on it’s own nearly as well as Pattern Recognition, but, particularly as the improved sucessor to Spook Country, it is an excellent novel.

The one nagging concern I have when I think about the Bigend trilogy is about it’s longevity: they are heavily, heavily steeped in ephemera of the moment, to the point that it is partly their topic, and it is unclear to me how well that will age. Pattern Recognition is my favorite largely out of fondness and nostalgia for the ‘now’ it was written in, although also out of a taste for it’s overt topic. It least suffers the problem simply because it predates much of the internet’s collective consciousness, despite having said consciousness as one of its chief concerns. In contrast, Zero History is made up of ecclectic references to Festo’s more eccentric products, iPhones, quadrotor drones, and ekranoplan; things renderd exciting through the fickle fascinations of the interent. Hopefully, like the Curtas and origional toilet seat iBook that filled such roles in Pattern Recogniton they will continue to stand on their own interest.

In short: Go read it, and it’s prequels if you haven’t. It is by far the best novel I’ve read (for the first time) in years, and retains all the enjoyable trappings of popular fiction, despite its literate complication.

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2009 Nebula Awards

I just saw that the 2009 Nebula Award winners were announced while I was travelling, and the few I know are interesting choices. I’ve also read a few of the runners up in the Short Story/Novella/Novelette sections, which I remember as being particularly good. I’ll have to track down copies of the ones I haven’t seen, I’ve been trying to read at least most of the Nebula short form candidates for the last several years, and its always been a good experence.

The most interesting thing to me is that I had just read the Short Story winner (”Spar” by Kij Johnson) in the car on the way up to Madison … and been entirely underwhelmed, which was really surprising, since her previous successful short story “26 Monkeys, Also, The Abyss” was one of my favorites last year, and I’ve been found of most of her other short fiction. Figures that the first thing of her’s I’ve read that I didn’t like wins a Nebula. It definitely was the sort of thing that is challenging enough to be an award winner.

While talking about short stories, I want to note that I’ve always tended to like my fiction in extremely short form, or extremely long form, the past several years have mostly only afforded me time for the short form, and my main fix for the short form stuff has come from the “The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year” series, which is excellently curated by Jonathan Strahan. I picked up the first one on a suggestion+Whim shortly after it became available, and have picked up the others as they became available because they are reliably excellent collections. I’m still working on this year’s, and am a little bit less impressed, but it is still riveting reading. My two favorites (which haven’t aligned terribly well with the various awards) in previous years have been:
Vol. 1
“Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)” by Geoff Ryman, and “D.A.” By Connie Willis
Vol. 2
“Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory, and “Sorrel’s Heart” by Susan Palwik
Vol. 3
“Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe” by Garth Nix, “26 Monkeys, Also, the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
With “Dead Horse Point” being most under-appreciated of the above.
I also like that there have been several in each, but particularly in Vol. 3, that are really rich literary riffs, references, connections or extensions with sometimes improbable famous works. As a particularly weird example, I had the powerful impression that “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel” is a riff off of Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, but the genesis is officially explained differently. If you like SF/Fantasy, and especially if you have a limited amount of time to spend reading, this is the annual collection to get.

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