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Backlog to the Future (October Reading)

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin): I'm starting to notice a trend: I like biographies that do a great research job on the individual, and tie that person into the larger social context. (Case in point: the Alice Sheldon bio.) So take a heavily end-noted biography that does all that and is about science, and I say it is the best thing ever. The incidental trajectory of advanced physics' fall from innocence and entanglement with 20th century politics is a toe-curling bonus. Intellectually, I think I should be aware that science and politics have rarely not interpenetrated, because what you know affects what you can or think you can do, but it's possible to tell this story that starts "once upon a time in Copenhagen, a decade and a half after the Miracle Year" with Niels Bohr and the physics of the '20s, and make up a very romantic story about the trajectory of physics through the '50s, the h-bomb, and the cold war. And Oppenheimer's rise in the sciences, movement through Los Alamos and '50s politics, and fall from political grace are strongly tied into that story.

What I got out of this: Robert Oppenheimer was a scary smart, very complex person. Also sometimes very quotable. Not a particularly good parent. I want to write, "I can make it clearer; I can't make it simpler." (J. Robert Oppenheimer) somewhere prominent and obnoxious. Bird and Sherwin paint a fascinating portrait of someone who had a very firm, individual approach to life, internally consistent but frustrating to people who wanted a yes-man. In the 1930's, Oppenheimer was active in the leftist and radical intellectual circles; after the war, Oppenheimer gave a speech which the biographers quoted:

"It is a cruel and humorless sort of pun that so powerful a present form of modern tyranny should call itself by the very name of a belief in community, 'communism', which in other times evoked memories of villages and village inns and of artisans concerting their skills, and of men learning [to be] content with anonymity. But perhaps only a malignant end can follow the systematic belief that all communities are one community; that all truth is one truth; that all experience is compatible with all other; that total knowledge is possible; that all that is potential can exist as actual. This is not man's fate; this is this not his path; to force him on it makes him resemble not that divine image of the all-knowing and all-powerful but the helpless, iron-bound prisoner of a dying world." (p475)


An extensive look at a fascinating life. Absolutely recommended. In the land of small coincidences, this was my reading on my San Francisco trip (and for several weeks afterward); my sister and I nearly went to the Exploratorium, founded by Robert Oppenheimer's brother Frank, but couldn't get the scheduling to work. Maybe next time.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A Novel (Mark Haddon): 15-year-old Swindon boy tries to solve the murder of a neighbor's dog. Oh, he's got an unspecified autism spectrum disorder. Someone recommended this a couple years ago, and I just now got around to it. If you have any familiarity with autism spectrum disorders, you can check off the characteristic behaviors as you read. Some cursory googling suggests that people who do not have autism found this interesting and entertaining, but people who are autistic or routinely interact with autistic individuals are a little less sanguine, pointing out that Christopher Boone - the protagonist - is an amalgam of autism spectrum traits, and is remarkably self-reflective, and can't stand in for every autistic person everywhere. So I would say, if you're using this as a Handbook to Dealing With Your Autistic Whatever, you'd do better to google "autism" or "autism books" and do some nonfiction reading, but if you're looking for an interesting story, this may be of interest.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (M. T. Anderson): A fictional slave's narrative in immediately pre-Revolution Boston. What people always neglect to mention about the American Revolution is that it was an illegal (if highly popular) guerrilla action against a legitimate (by England's lights) government, and without that little detail it feels like another retelling of first-grade history. I think the focus on how, really, the Boston revolutionaries were in it for the money and property (westward expansion, slaves) makes it much murkier and interesting.

I also flipped through many of Catherine Asaro's Skolia stories: Primary Inversion, The Radiant Seas, The Moon's Shadow, Skyfall, "Stained Glass Heart", "A Roll of the Dice", "Walk in Silence", "Aurora in Four Voices", The Quantum Rose. It's a sickness. Every few years I dip back into the romance-of-genealogy, and eventually I run out of books and get my head screwed back on straight. I am very lukewarm on Asaro's novels; I want to like them, but my enjoyment is generally derailed by repetitive plots: boy/girl meets girl/boy, someone is sexually menaced by a third party, generally one of the genetically engineered empire-running sadists, there's some explosions and maybe a standoff and some people-swapping and the boy and girl live happily ever after, usually with adorable, precocious biological children. Sometimes I have more specific issues. I know that The Quantum Rose is supposed to be a romance and a metaphor for quantum scattering; I am insufficiently physics-enabled to say how well the metaphor maps, but I did not react well to the romance: I can hear [info] tessfawcett saying, "Her ex-fiancee was abusive, but her new husband is an alcoholic and she will cure him with the power of her love. So that's all right!" in a pretty sarcastic tone. I live in hope that Asaro will write something I like as much as The Radiant Seas, but so far no joy. Just be glad that this time, I stopped before the newest book, Diamond Star, where - this is what Amazon tells me - a prince of the Ruby Dynasty runs away to Earth under an assumed name, where he pursues his dream to become a rock star. I cannot make this stuff up: telepathic noble rock star. I don't think I'm allowed to read that without altering my consciousness through booze or trauma.

Science Fiction: The Best of the Year (2006) (Ed. Rich Horton): From the dollar rack at the used book store.

The good: "The Jenna Set" by Daniel Kaysen is a cute double-romance with some statistics noise and weak AI/really good answering machines. I was entertained. Michael Swanwick's "Triceratops Summer" met my expectations without exceeding them. "The Fate of Mice" by Susan Palwick was cute, but featured a plucky little girl and a talking lab rat. "The Policeman's Daughter" (Wil McCarthy) is set in his 'Queendom of Sol' universe, started on a low note for me, and gradually built to the final line - "Fool! She's five months from dumping you!" - which is what tipped it over for me. "Finished" by Robert Reed is not a good story, but it's an interesting failure: the premise is an immortal pyramid scheme, where people with a great deal of money or a very large loan can be transformed from a biological person to a silicate/metal body, who can accumulate experience but are 'finished' - can't change on a neuron level. What's interesting is that it's also a little like the "memes" Richard Dawkins described in The Selfish Gene: something that evolves, replicates, mutates in a human ecology. Finishing relies on an initially human population, and on convincing people that being finished will increase ecological fitness. Whether this is true is severely undermined by the actions of the finished in the story, so it makes me look at the entire story from a biology perspective: are the finished parasites on humanity, or commensals? What are the opportunity costs of the process? I think this is a very interesting story to me, but mostly because of the experiences I bring to it, and I'm not sure it's actually really good, or would appeal to a larger audience in the same way.

The meh: "Bank Run" by Tom Purdom is the epitome of "meh": for two weeks I read about two pages a day. It had a couple of interesting ideas severely hampered by presentation and my dislike for the main character. Douglas Lain's "A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion" was experimental in the "someone else's interesting failure" way. "The Edge of Nowhere" (James Patrick Kelley) featured the Steadfast Girlfriend and the Adventurous Boyfriend; servicable without doing a thing for me. "Heartwired" by Joe Haldeman was trite. It was a vignette in search of a hook, and the "choose your own ending, only not" conclusion did not work for me. Howard Waldrop's "The King of Where-I-Go" has been oversold to me. James Van Pelt's "The Inn at Mount Either" hangs on whether I care about dumb tourists who can't follow safety precautions. Mostly I was distracted by the vagueness of the precautions. "Search Engine" by Mary Rosenblum wants to be a novel; a novella is the wrong pacing. Alastair Reynolds' "Understanding Space and Time" is, like, the back half of 2001, only with Elton John hallucinations likely to date this horribly. I got nothin' to explain this one.

The ugly: "Bliss" by Leah Bobet explores many American middle-class substance abuse cliches. Because, you know, druggies will roofie your Christmas dinner. Uh-huh. It's bad story-telling and a lousy understanding of addiction with a light garnish of hilariously bad phamaceutical R&D on the side, with bonus random blood draws for employment-related drug testing! It's not good. " 'You' by Anonymous", by Stephen Leigh lost me on the second line: "You also grimace a bit at the use of the second pronoun, thinking it both a bit akward and pretentious..." yep. Not to mention a lousy hook, and such stiff prose I didn't even bother skipping to the last sentence.

Skin Deep (Mark Del Franco): Laura Blackstone: PR director by day, freelance druid and/or high-powered player on the DC scene by night. Now her public and secret identities are on the trail of the same blown drug bust that may have political implications.

So: billed as a thriller, with magic. About a century back, the faerie realms merged/dumped magical beings into Earth, with surprisingly little backlash. Now the Irish and Germanic magical courts interact with the governments of the 21st century, with the Fae Guild - Laura Blackstone's employers - acting as the public face of the Fae Court, based out of what used to be Ireland. Laura works out of the DC branch, which is where my first major bump comes in: where the heck is the Guildhouse? Sort of by the Reagan building? On Capitol Hill? Up and over in NE or NW? del Franco fails the "feels like DC" suspension of disbelief test hard: for one thing, no one complains about the metro. Granted, that's because the milieu is high-powered fae who don't take public transit, but I'm pretty sure at least one of Blackstone's personas - the broke one - should have some familiarity with chronic weekend single-tracking and trying to find a decent grocery store in the city limits. And parking. There is a reason metro is so popular in DC, despite its many failings. Once you've broken the suspension of disbelief, I started questioning more of the setup - so, Farie is now on Earth, circa 1900-ish, how did WW1 go down? Religious implications? Racial/ethnic tensions? And why are all the paranormals drawn from European tradition? - which distracted me from the Burning Hunk of Love subplot, alas. Not sold.

Unfallen Dead (Mark Del Franco):Connor Grey, druid, ex-Guild guy who's lost his magic and is stuck on disability, sometimes Boston PD free-lancer, starts the book with an occult murder and ends it confronting the Opening of the Ways between life and death. I actually finished this at the beginning of November, but it sort of comes as a set with Skin Deep. The two novels share a universe, but Unfallen Dead is actually the third of a different series set in Boston, with different characters. Since Boston may as well be Faerie as far as I'm concerned, any setting issues completely passed me by: I was too busy enjoying the wacky characters and situations. [info - personal] norabombay did not mention the transdimensional motorcycle ride during her initial pitch, but it holds a special place in my heart. Connor's sometimes-girlfriend sometimes-it's-complicated Meryl Dian, the reappearance of Connor's partner from his high-flying New York City days, and my irrational appreciation for abrasive Boston-style social interaction may have played significant parts in my enjoyment of this novel.

Again, this is the third of the series, which probably explains a lot about why I liked it. On one hand, I generally try to read series in order; on the other, I really, really like picking apart the character evolution from the original premise stuff when I jump in midseries. (My first Darkover novel was Exile's Song at 13-ish, which, because of its semi-coauthorship status, can almost be considered post-series. I was disappointed to realize all the parts I liked best were side-effects of being the n book in a series written over 20 years.) Worldbuilding is my bulletproof attractor, and reverse-engineering the worldbuilding makes some deep-seated part of my brain hum happily.

Complaints? Oh, I could whine. The Fae are unthinkingly European, the "it's noir with fae, no wait it's urban fantasy with noir" trope mess is a mixed bag - okay, I actually like peanut butter in my chocolate, but it's not for everyone - and Connor's skewed disability-slash-evolving-superpowers could all be considered detractors, but this is the first book to make me laugh out loud in a really long time (seriously: transdimensional motorcycle ride, it's better than alcohol or even the red matter* for completely unhooking my logic processes). If you're looking for entertaining in the delightfully pulpish way, this is awesome. If you're looking for highbrow literature or a racefail-compliant experience, your head will explode about 100 pages in. All of my complaints fade in the light of entertainment, and my one true complaint: the cover is hideous. I am horribly tempted to photoshop something that offends my eyes less, because the novel is going to entertain me for years.

*It's been half a year since I saw the new Star Trek movie, and just saying "red matter" still cracks me up.

Numbers: 6 total plus Asaro rereads. 6 new, ~2.5 reread; 5(+~2.5) fiction, 1 nonfiction. 1 short story collection.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
meril
Nov. 26th, 2009 06:31 am (UTC)
on the Alastair Reynolds story--I think Reynolds has nothing much to explain about it either. XD It's in one of his short story collections and iirc it was for a convention program book and he wrote it on incredibly short notice.
ase
Dec. 2nd, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)
For short notice, it's fine, but I'm puzzled at how it would be considered top-drawer fiction of the year.

Do you know who else loves their Bosendorfer? Tori Amos. Imagine hallucinating Tori on Mars! (Okay, maybe not such a great plan.)
charlie_ego
Dec. 1st, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
Okay, I will have to check out the Oppenheimer bio; that sounds cool (and I really liked the Sheldon one).

I should think that writing from an autistic kid's viewpoint would be pretty much impossible without taking some liberties... though I could see not being impressed with those liberties if you actually had experience with autism.

I also found "Finished" to have quite interesting ideas (though I read it in another anthology, I think), though more from the perspective of "hmm, would this be something that I would consider worth doing?" Maybe. Maybe not.
ase
Dec. 2nd, 2009 04:15 am (UTC)
I think I'd be inclined to not be finished, because first, I'd always wonder, "what if tomorrow is a better day to be finished?" Also? Pyramid scheme. I'd wait until I was a vain 60something on the downhill slide, at least. :-)


The Oppenheimer bio was something I pulled off the Pulitzer lists, which is a good way to get excellent nonfiction.
filkferengi
Dec. 2nd, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC)
Have you read _Rosemary And Rue_ by Seanan McGuire? It's faerietale noir set in San Francisco, with fae from different ethnic traditions.
ase
Dec. 4th, 2009 04:50 am (UTC)
Not since the last time you asked! :-)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )