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Redshirts, by John Scalzi

One reason that I like reading John Scalzi’s blog and short stories (sad disclaimer: this is the first novel of his that I’ve read) is that he writes about things that he has a genuine interest and delight in, and that comes through so very clearly. He has fun putting words together, poking fun at the tropes and attitudes of anything he likes (mostly sci-fi, but also politics and other things).

Redshirts is exactly that kind of book. It’s a book for anyone who laments hand-wavy science, character inconsistencies, Captain Exposition, and ridiculous MacGuffins in their television shows. Anyone who’s ever said, “wait, wasn’t he near death just last week?” or “Didn’t he profess undying love to that other character the week before?” or sighed when a new character with an emotionally involved backstory comes on, because he’s going to die before the end of the episode.

I think it’s gained plenty of cultural traction, but just in case – redshirts are the extras, the bit players, usually on sci-fi shows who are in a story situation with regular cast members. To increase tension, someone has to die, or at least be severely injured. It’s not going to be one of the regular cast members. If the bit player has an emotional tie to a main character, or more lines than, “oh, no, it’s a <gurgle> *thud*”, they may last until the third act. Otherwise, they’re dead in the teaser. [Geek moment – in the original Star Trek, redshirts weren’t always wearing red shirts. There was a prevalence of redshirts, but the redshirt-type character was sometimes wearing a blue or a yellow shirt instead. Red shirts were security, so they were most often the tag-alongs, but science/engineering and medical personnel were not exempt from the redshirt phenomenon.]

What makes this book different – how it subverts the trope – is that it turns the probable redshirt characters into main characters who then become aware that their function is to provide temporary emotional impact for the “regulars”. So, of course, they try to change it. Nobody wants to be horribly killed simply as a plot device, after all. And the whole thing turns into a send-up and homage to Star Trek and all other space-set science fiction shows, with a brilliantly tight ending and three codas. One of the codas only just escapes being a cliche, but the other two are perfect. It’s science fiction, because it’s mostly set on a spaceship in the future, but more than that, it’s about science fiction, what we expect from it and what we’re willing to accept from it.

I do have complaints, though. Well, one complaint. I didn’t find the characters to be very full – they had backstories but not really personalities. I guess that can be seen as one of the points, but I did occasionally find it difficult to remember who was talking, to hear their voice in my head. Except Jenkins. Jenkins was awesome. I think that’s the only thing, though. The science is very hand-wavy, but it’s supposed to be. It’s very story-driven, and moves very quickly, and some stuff gets glossed over, but I think the only real thing I had a problem with was the characterisation.

I will be actively looking for more of Scalzi’s stuff in the future – beyond, of course, Whatever, which is one of my daily must-reads on Google Reader. If you like funny stuff, sci-fi themed stuff, etc., then you should too.

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The Morville Hours, by Katherine Swift

This is another one, like Mr. Rosenblum’s List, that’s on my local library’s sort-of-book-club list. Unlike Mr. Rosenblum’s List, I had heard of The Morville Hours before.  It had always sort of intrigued me, but other things always had my attention. Plus, I’m not really a gardener, so it never seemed like the kind of book that I just had to read right now.

But I am a medieval connections afficianado, and when it’s on a book club list, you’ve got to at least give it a try. And I liked it – not that I thought I wouldn’t. But I did find it a bit soporific – I could read a full section at a time, but that was about my limit, and after finishing it this morning I slept for two hours.

I’m not completely blaming my narcolepsy on the  book – I’ve been very mentally and physically busy in the last while, and it’s been hot (highs around 90F, lest any of my US readers think I’m exaggerating), and I’m on a sort of down time until my job starts. But reading a book that is so imbued with the rotation of the hours, months, and years added to my sense of placidity.

The book combines descriptions and history of the medieval “book of hours” – a prayer book detailing the prayers and readings for the times of day (Matins, Vespers, etc.) – with the liturgical year, the agricultural year, the building of a massive garden (really a series of gardens) in a stately home over twenty years, and some of her own personal and family history. It’s organised around the canonical hours, and each of the chapters fits the emotional theme of the part of the day –  Matins is about beginnings, childhood, newness, planning, and Christmas and early winter, for example.

In addition to giving the history of the garden, and herself somewhat, and the liturgical calendar, Swift gives us the history of the house and the area. The area has been settled since Celtic times, with a fortification from the Saxons and a castle and stately home since the Normans. It was important in the Civil War, saw the transition from farming to mills and factories to industrialised unemployment. The house itself shifted from family to family over the centuries, as these things often do, and those families are also touched on in some of the chapters.

It also, as it’s a book about a garden, has descriptions and histories of some of the plants. I have to admit, I’m not very good at botany. I always wish I were better at it, but I’m really not good. I’m an inside person primarily, who looks at flowers and plants and goes “how pretty!” but usually doesn’t know or remember the names (either common names or Latin names) beyond “tulip” or “rose” – and only those if they are blooming. That said, Katherine Swift’s descriptions helped me see the plants, even if I didn’t have a good cultural memory of what she was describing. She’s a very evocative writer; I found myself living in a Shropshire village through the seasons even though I’ve never been to Shropshire in any sort of weather.

It’s a good book; I don’t think I’d read it again except as a reference for some of the liturgical and monastic references, but I’m glad I’ve read it once. It flows very well, moving seamlessly between the garden and the history and the personal anecdotes. Especially if you like gardens, it’s one you should pick up.

 

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Mr. Rosenblum’s List, by Natasha Solomons

My local library is doing a sort of book club. There’s no schedule, no meetings – just a list of books and an end date. You can read whichever of the books you want, at your own pace, and write a tiny review on the enclosed paper. And at the end of a certain time, the library will collect and collate all the reviews and there will be a voluntary discussion session.

This was the first book on the list so I gave it a try. It tells the story of a German refugee couple in the mid-20th century. Jack, the husband, wants desperately to belong in England and uses a list of instructions given to refugees as his guide, adding to it as he discovers more “typically English” things. Sadie, his wife, wants desperately not to forget their life and family in Germany. As you can imagine, this causes problems. Jack runs into problems fulfilling the list’s edicts – anti-Semitism is subtle but rife in post-war Britain, so he can’t become a member of a golf club, for instance. Sadie, on the other hand, sees her husband’s attempts to belong in Britain as a betrayal of their life “before” and an abandonment of their religion, heritage, and family. Jack is nothing if not persistent, though, and moves to Dorset in order to build his own golf course so that he can become a “real” Englishman.

The main thing that I took away from this book – apart from anger at the attacks and vandalism that come with casual racism, and anger at Jack when he ignores or dismisses Sadie – is a deeper though about “how to belong”. I think everyone can agree that simply following a set of rules isn’t enough to make you “belong” – especially when the rules are slightly different for different social groups. There isn’t one overarching set of rules to say “this is an Englishman” or “this is an American” or “this is a German.” The rules are different for Dorset and London, for upper-class and middle-class and working-class, for impoverished gentry and emigrants, for farm laborers and factory workers.

But the most important thing about “belonging” is not what rules to follow, but when to make up your own rules and when to go beyond the rules. Any group is made up of individuals, often similar but never identical. Jack does a lot better at his quest to belong when he stops trying so hard to get all the details right and just acts normally (for him). Sadie finds her “belonging” by doing what she does best (baking and cooking) but also because she never pretends to be something she’s not.

The other thing that helps with “belonging” is when you yourself are inclusive. Jack never turns anyone away, and makes an effort with everyone he meets to bring them into his project and his life. Sir William, on the other hand, makes an effort to exclude and is, in the end, excluded himself. Exclusion can limit belonging – Jack excludes Sadie who in turn excludes him: it’s not until they both make an effort to include the other in their lives that they come together again.

I would recommend this book – I gave it four stars on the library review sheet. It’s not a must-read, a “why haven’t you read this yet” or anything, but it’s nice, and well-crafted, and well-written. If you happen to pick it up, you won’t be sorry.

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Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes

I can’t quite get a handle on Julian Barnes’s writing. I enjoyed England, England despite the lack of any sympathetic characters; I couldn’t get more than a few pages into Flaubert’s Parrot before it started annoying me so much that I had to stop.  Arthur and George sucked me in, but I’m not sure how much of that is the “true story/true crime” nature of it, the interactions with historically familiar people and places, and how much of it is Julian Barnes’s writing. I fear it is the former.

Arthur and George relates the personal histories of Arthur and George up to the point where their lives intersect. George is the son of a vicar who grows up to be a solicitor and a minor expert in railway law. Arthur is the son of an Edinburgh landlady who grows up to be an ophthalmologist and, eventually, a writer of popular stories.

George is accused and ultimately convicted of mutilating horses and serves three years in prison before being released on probation. He and the reader know that he didn’t do it – in fact, it’s basically physically impossible for him to have done it – and he spends the years after his release applying to everyone he can think of to gain a free pardon. He even writes to Arthur, the famous novelist, who has been emotionally dead since his wife’s death and throws himself into this cause with Sherlock Holmes-like vigour and attention. George is pardoned but not compensated, but even more than that, Arthur’s friendship brings him back into society.

Barnes is coy about the key identifying points of his protagonists, which is probably more effective if you don’t go in knowing those details. I did, though – and they’re in almost every review, including the Publisher’s Weekly blurb on Amazon – so I found the avoidance of those details, and especially the way George’s reveal seemed almost forced in (Let’s have a scene specifically to reveal this point!), really awkward and false.

I also found Barnes’s style very unemotional, matter-of-fact. Some of that may have been George’s personality – he came across as having an almost autistic detachment from other people, including his family, and an insistence on accuracy that serves him well as a solicitor but less well as a defendant. Arthur, on the other hand, is supposed to be relatively passionate, and I always felt distanced from him, and from everything that was happening to and around him. I’m not sure I was supposed to; I’m pretty sure I didn’t really like that feeling.

So I’m on the fence about Julian Barnes. I have yet to read The Sense of an Ending, which for some reason is listed as non-fiction in the bibliography at the end of my copy of Arthur and George – maybe that will help me make up my mind.

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The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I was recommended this book by BrittanyBrittanyBrittany, who described it – as many of the reviews have – as “Harry Potter for grownups”. In some ways, that’s true, but it manages to get past that and become absolutely its own book, where the only thing it has in common with Rowling’s world is the existence of a magical school, and a group of friends who have to save the world.

But the major difference between The Magicians and Harry Potter is that Brakebills is a college, with college-age students and all the accompanying “freedom from parents” activities that go along with going to university and becoming an adult, while Hogwarts is a prep school, where the students grow up but are still very structured and regulated. There’s a lot of sex and drinking in this book, both at Brakebills as people negotiate their place in whatever social group they end up in and afterwards as a way to stave off the boredom of real life and as an effort for Quentin, the main character, to establish some sort of sense and meaning.

For much of his time before and at Brakebills, Quentin reminded me of myself. Not with the sex and the drinking – okay, maybe a little with the drinking – but with his general outlook and understanding of his situation. Quentin, like me, didn’t dream of a future beyond university, didn’t have a life goal outside of education. He could do, potentially, everything, and therefore ended up doing essentially nothing.

(I didn’t do nothing, but I have spent most of the last ten years not knowing what I was going to be working towards next. Because I can do almost anything, because I have so many potential choices, I find it difficult to focus on any one thing, constantly terrified that I’ve picked the wrong thing to focus on and I would really be happier and more satisfied if I went in this direction, but now I’ve spent so much time on this that I haven’t been able to do that…. and that’s how I end up with teaching experience but no teaching qualifications, a couple of years in mind-numbing retail, and a hard drive filled with lists of ideas, half-begun stories, and manuscripts waiting for revision….)

The part that rang most true for me was the description of the last semester at Brakebills, where Quentin and Alice oscillate between a fierce desire to cling on to familiarity and eke every last experience and memory out of Luther   Brakebills, and a desperate chafing at the restrictions and requirements and an almost angry impatience to start their “real lives.” It’s the best, most accurate depiction of senioritis I’ve ever read.

But Brakebills is only the beginning, of course. There are other dimensions, other worlds, and eventually our group goes to visit one, a Narnia-type place without (as far as I know) the blatant Christian parallels. They fight, they die (or nearly die), and Quentin, at least, learns that you can either engage fully with the world or disengage fully from it – there are no half-measures if you want to survive.

There are only two loose ends for me in this book. The first one is not very significant, I think: what is Quentin’s Discipline? I don’t really think the answer to this is essential – it’s ultimately just another way to categorize and/or isolate people, after all. It strikes me as something only marginally more self-defining than your stated major in college. It may affect how you do things in the wider world, but it doesn’t necessarily affect what you do.

The second lose end is Julia, Quentin’s adolescent crush who failed the Brakebills entrance exam and the subsequent memory wipe. If she hadn’t reappeared, begging for help, I probably would have forgotten about her, as Quentin had nearly forgotten about her, as you tend to forget about high school friends whose life experiences end up so radically different from your own. But she did reappear, and her story wasn’t really resolved, so the niggling question of “what happened to Julia” persists. (I did look at a blurb about the sequel, The Magician King, and it seems she’ll reappear there.)

It’s a very, very good book. It is not Harry Potter (in fact, it takes a few pains to point out that fact) – it’s a book for adults and possibly young adults rather than children. I wouldn’t give it to a 13-year-old. I might to a 16-year-old, as long as I didn’t think it would horribly depress and discourage them. It was captivating, a tiny notch lower on my personal absorption scale than Ready Player One and The Name of the Wind – but only a tiny notch. I am already actively seeking a copy of The Magician King. (And Codex, by the same author but not in the same storyworld, looks very interesting as well….)

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Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I feel a little bit odd that I wrote the first draft of this post by hand, because the book is so technologically bound. (In my defense, I was using a sonic screwdriver pen.) It’s the type of book that might benefit greatly from being re-read on an iPad or Kindle Touch – something that can give you links to the references or have the songs playing in the background at the appropriate moment. It doesn’t need this, of course, but it might accent and enhance the experience. It’s also the type of book that cries out for annotations – again, not that it needs them, but to make the experience fuller. It invites study of the level that it describes. If I get bored or stuck in my unemployment, I might start collecting a database.

But it doesn’t need any of that to be a good book, which it is. It’s a near-future SF, set in about 2044. The world economy has essentially collapsed, thanks to climate change and the depletion of nearly every natural resources. There are two major technological factors in American life: IOI, a corporation that seems to control most of real life, and OASIS, an immersive virtual reality. The creator of OASIS has died by the time the book begins, and has left his immense fortune and control of OASIS to whomever can solve a series of riddles and Easter eggs. The evil corporation wants it, of course – and so do our heroes.

It’s a classic quest story – our hero [real name Wade, avatar’s name Parzifal] has no real family, picks up companions along the way, some of which leave him at various times and for various reasons, and they encounter many obstacles that not only advance the quest but help Wade grow as a person. The corporation tries to stop them (usually violently). And it’s filled to the brim with 80s references: films, music, anime, and video games mostly. (This is why I want annotations!)

As well as being a good plot-based story, it’s also pretty good on some of the deeper themes that come up whenever you talk about technology: addiction, privacy, feminism, identity, to name the major and more obvious ones. But it’s not all a doom-and-gloom, today’s-society-is-wrong message. Parallels with today are drawn, of course, but in both good and bad ways.

Let’s start with the good: OASIS demonstrates, absolutely, the power that technology has to bring people together and to educate. The schools, for those who can get access through financial or meritocratic means, are fantastic if for no other reason than the program won’t let class be disrupted. You can’t leave your desk, you can’t access non-relevant information (like emails, for instance) during class, you can’t do anything non-school related. There are bad teachers, of course – or at least not-great ones (the Latin teacher comes to mind) – but because the teachers don’t have to spend so much energy on discipline, they can focus on actually teaching.

OASIS can also make experiences much more accessible. Money is still a factor, of course, but the lack of it isn’t quite as limiting as it is in the real world. Era is no barrier, physical location is no barrier. If you want to take a class trip to see the Roman Forum, you can – if you want to investigate the composition of the moons of Jupiter, you can. You can experience anything you want.

And because it’s a virtual reality world, interaction between people can be a lot more realistic. Because of the devices and the immersive nature of OASIS, you can actually feel physical interactions with other people.  You can see their avatars, not just words on a screen. There is actually less anonymity, in some ways, than in today’s online interactions – you can see people’s reactions to your words and actions instead of waiting for a typed response. I’ll get to this more in the identity conversation, but basically, you can choose to appear however you want to appear: the way you see yourself and the way other people see you can be much closer.

Of course, all of the arguments against technology are there too, especially addiction and isolation. For all the mental connections that Parzifal and the others make, they have very few physical connections. Parzifal spends several months withut ever leaving his apartment, and has to force himself to initiate a fitness program before he turns into Jabba the Hutt (surprisingly, not a reference made in the text). It is acknowledged that it would be far too easy to stay in OASIS and die in the real world. Nothing is programmed in  to avoid this, though – it’s entirely up to the user whether s/he wants to commit suicide via VR.

Privacy is also a very real issue. IOI manages to access, legally or illegally, the personal information of every gunter (our hero and his friends), including real identity and home address. The avatar and the human may only be linked in one place, a place that is supposed to be completely encrypted, but that one place is enough to open up everything else.  The first clue is blown open because someone else happens to know that both Parzifal and Aech go to school on the same “planet” – that one little detail, apparently unconnected to anything else, becomes the lever that reveals the secrets of everyone else. It’s terrifying, both in the context of the book and its real life implications.

The big thing, of course, is identity, and I touched on that a bit ago. In OASIS, you can be whatever you want to be, appear as anything you want to be. If you want to be treated – or not treated – in a certain way, you can change yourself enough to make that feasible. I don’t want to spoil things, but it is mentioned some in a non-spoilery way near the beginning: Parzifal has developed a crush on a blogger named Art3mis – and expresses repeated concern that she is a middle-aged man named Chuck living in his mom’s basement. Because she so easily could be. In another example, if you are a black female teenager and want to be taken seriously, you could change your avatar into an older white male. It’s sad and unfortunate that that would work (and even worse that when I read about it, I thought, “oh, that’s an effective way to do it”) – I can only hope that one day, people read this book and don’t understand why someone would feel like they need to change their race or gender in order to be taken seriously.

Since most of the book takes place within OASIS, people’s “real” physical identities are never really an issue – even when Parzifal expresses doubts about Art3mis, he follows them up with a sense of “but I don’t really care, because our connection through this is real.” And possibly the best line for this comes from Parzifal and Aech’s first IRL meeting, when they realise that they do already know each other – it’s only the “minor” things like gender and race they didn’t know.

By contrast, IOI takes away the identity of nearly everyone they employ. The IOI avatars have numbers, not names, and even they can be taken over by any of the various employees as needed. Indents (indentured servants) are essentially forbidden from any sort of personality expression, ranging from how they interact with IOI customers to what they watch in their “free time”. It’s an obvious but vivid contrast to the expressions of individuality that the OASIS can provide.

I could probably go on, and I’m sure other people will, and this doesn’t even get into the 80s nostalgia and pop culture references that permeate the book and provide both the rationale and the background for the plot. But I’m at nearly 1300 words – and really, I just want to read it again.

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The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

I ran across this book as part of the Morning News’s Tournament of Books. I really enjoy following their tournament every spring, but since I’m not in the US, March Madness sometimes sneaks up on me. This year I was lucky in that Wil Wheaton, who I follow consistently online, was one of the first-round judges, so I knew exactly when it started. His round was this book against State of Wonder.

He really didn’t like State of Wonder. I can understand why, of course, and he was right that he’s not the target audience for it. He also really, really loved this book. So I thought, “okay, that’s one recommendation right there…..if I run across it, maybe I’ll give it a try.” It ended up winning the Tournament, and then I saw that it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and then it was on sale at Waterstones. It was inevitable.

It’s a Western, in setting and tone, but like the best books do, it doesn’t limit itself to the themes of its genre. It’s about two brothers, gunslingers, on a job to kill a prospector in California. It’s about the demands of loyalty to family and to employer and to morality. It’s about recognising the social structures of the time and your part in creating or maintaining them. And it’s about the discovery that what you’ve done all your life isn’t what you want to be.

Where it particularly excels is in the actual language. Westerns for decades have had a particular voice – a weird combination of completely simple and completely high-flown. It’s hard to maintain without seeming foolish, but deWitt pulls it off. Eli isn’t the most intelligent or educated man, but he’s not stupid, and he’s well-meaning. He recognises the way the world works, and his part in the badness of it, and does what he can to make amends. He can never do a lot, but he does what he can, and he tries to temper Charlie’s excesses as much as he can.

It’s an incredible journey, not just geographically, but emotionally as Eli finds their way of life more and more untenable, while Charlie continues to find exhilaration in the extremes. Ultimately, they completely change places, with Eli becoming the leader and Charlie sinking into submission.

It’s not a book for everyone (what book is?) but it’s fast, and clear, and intriguing. Read the judges’ analyses on Tournament of Books, and then decide for yourself.

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