Transition by Iain M. Banks

I never heard of Iain Banks until he announced that he was
dying, and then died a couple of months later.

From what people said of him then, it sounded like I would be
interested in his books, so I borrowed Transition
from my public library. I
finished reading it last night while trying to get back to sleep
after being awakened by a mosquito.

It’s about a number of important but unpleasant subjects, like
torture and child abuse, so a fair amount of it is quite
unpleasant to read. However it’s paced so that you want to see
how it turns out before you realize how unpleasant how much of it
is going to be, so instead of saying, “I’ll stop reading this
now,” you say, “I’ll finish this fast and then I can read
something fun.”

There is a lot of very good writing in this book, and I don’t
think the fact that I didn’t like it much will discourage me from
trying more books by this author.

The book publishing business is more than usually confused
about this book.

  • Mr. Banks published his literary fiction as Iain
    Banks and his Science Fiction as Iain M. Banks, but this book was
    published in the UK as Iain Banks, although in the US is was
    published correctly as Iain M. Banks.
  • A majority of the Iain M. Banks books take place in a universe
    where the dominant society calls itself “The Culture”. Amazon has Transition incorrectly listed as a
    “Culture” book, although it doesn’t in fact take place in that
    universe.

I’m glad the publishers are
working so hard to not confuse us.

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Reviewing Science Fiction

A lot of what I read these days is Science Fiction (or fantasy,
but it’s really hard to tell the difference sometimes). And I
sometimes feel that what I write here about the books that I’ve
really enjoyed is a fairly lame, “If you like this kind of thing,
you will like this book.”

So yesterday when I read Christopher
Beha’s essay about the New York Times Book Review
(which does not link to what it’s
responding to, but it’s presumably something like this),
I was initially heartened, because one of the points of the essay
is that that’s pretty much all you can say about genre
fiction. Specifically, he says:

It is my strong belief that what Jennifer Weiner calls “commercial fiction” and what everyone else calls “genre fiction” is by and large not very interesting to talk about, although it often enough happens to be interesting to read. Such fiction, even when very well made, is designed to conform to the expectations of its genre or subgenre, and usually the best that can be said about any given example of it is that it does or does not succeed in conforming to those expectations.

But then I started thinking about it, and decided that there
really are people who can review SF better than I can, or at least
better than I do in my hurried, “Here’s my post for the day, and
it’s an easy one because I have to run and do other stuff in the
morning,” way.

The other day I downloaded my free copy of issue 300 of The New York Review of Science
Fiction.
(You should, too, if you’re interested in such
things.) One of the articles it promised me was a review of John
Scalzi’s Redshirts,
which I had dismissed in my post
about the Hugo awards
by saying:

I am disappointed with the result of the novel voting.
Redshirts won, and that was the only one I seriously considered
voting against. (You rank your choices rather than
voting for just one, and one of the choices is “no award”, so I
call it voting against if I rank something behind “no award”.) I
didn’t end up doing that to Redshirts, but I did
think the basic premise was puerile.

I was glad to see that the full-length review by Darrell Schweitzer in TNYRSF
basically agreed with me, but with much more cogent argument. The
summary is like this:

If you think of this as the literary equivalent of a Twinkie, it is a very good Twinkie. Admittedly, if it wins the Hugo, which it might well do by the time this review is published, advocates of science fiction may have a little explaining to do. There are better and more substantial books out there, books which address the future with speculative rigor and which are about genuinely important matters. And John Scalzi has already written some of them. Here he seems to be largely screwing around, but doing it, we have to admit, entertainingly.

Schweitzer was more entertained by Redshirts that
I was, but I think we basically agree on why it wasn’t the best
choice for a Hugo award, and also on why to not actively vote
against it.

Two Michael Chabon novels

I read Telegraph
Avenue
by Michael Chabon last June, and liked it enough that I
immediately put The
Yiddish Policeman’s Union
, his more famous book, on hold at
the library. It came last week, and I finished it yesterday.

Both books are very densely written, with a lot of sense of
place. This is especially remarkable in The Yiddish Policeman’s
Union
, since the place is completely made-up. It’s an
alternate history book about a future where the Jews didn’t get
Palestine as a homeland, and there was an attempt to put a colony
of Jewish, mostly yiddish-speaking, refugees in Sitka,
Alaska. This book is a police procedural which takes place during
a period called “Reversion”, where sovereignty over the Federal
District will revert to the state of Alaska, and nobody knows how
many of the residents of Sitka will still have a job or a place to
live.

For both of these books, it took a while to get into them, because
the action starts in the middle, and you only really get
interested when you’ve heard some back story. I basically liked
Telegraph Avenue better, because I’m more interested in
the details of
midwifery and running record stores (which is what the main
characters in Telegraph Avenue did) than in police
procedurals.

But they’re both worth reading if you want long, intelligently
written novels.


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Hugo Awards are announced

This
year’s awards
were announced last night.

Because the voting took place last June, when I had flu and the
Boston Early Music Festival and my mother got sick and died, I
didn’t blog about them the way I usually do.

There were two things LoneStarCon did differently this year
that cut into my ability to blog:

  • They didn’t really announce when the packet for voters was
    available, so it had probably been up for a few weeks before I
    downloaded it and started reading. So I only read the major
    categories (novel, novella, novellette, short story), and not
    things like related works, and I didn’t get around to watching
    any of the nominated films.
  • They also didn’t send me a copy of how I voted, and so now
    almost three months later, I can’t really tell you except for
    novel. I remember the quality being uniformly pretty good, so I
    had trouble making up my mind on almost everything.

I am disappointed with the result of the novel voting.
Redshirts won, and that was the only one I seriously considered
voting against. (You rank your choices rather than
voting for just one, and one of the choices is “no award”, so I
call it voting against if I rank something behind “no award”.) I
didn’t end up doing that to Redshirts, but I did
think the basic premise was puerile.

Other than that, I thought they were all pretty good. I hadn’t
read any Kim Stanley Robinson before, and I thought
2312 was brilliant, but that the writing was a bit
long-winded. Throne of the Crescent Moon was a
good example of a fantasy set in a non-european (Arab in this
case) environment. Blackout wrapped up the trilogy
with fewer loose ends than I would have expected.

In the end, though, I voted for Captain Vorpatril’s
Alliance
. I know I’ve declined to vote for previous books
because they were part of a long series, but this one is more
self-contained than most of the Vorkosigan books. It’s true
that you wouldn’t care about the characters as much if you
hadn’t seen them before. But the basic reason I voted for it is
that I just liked it better. It was the only one I’d read
before the packet came out, so I left it to the end, but then I
really decided I had to reread it. I’m not sure I’ll ever want
to reread any of the others.


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Going Postal

We had a movie night last week to watch the film of Going
Postal
. The
book
is one of the better of Terry
Pratchett’s
more recent books. (I like Making
Money
even better, but you should read Going
Postal
first.)

There were three of us — I’ve been reading everything by
Pratchett that I could get my hands on since about 1998, a friend
who is a big Pratchett fan but also a very busy man, so he’s
probably read about half of the Discworld books, and was only
halfway through Going Postal when we saw the movie, and
another friend who has only vaguely heard of Pratchett. (Also two
dogs — Sammy was sick
and Monte was feeling abandoned by both his mommies (my mother
died and my sister went to Europe), and not yet settling in well
at all.) The food was Taiwanese from the excellent restaurant across
the street.
The big hit was the octopus with mustard greens.
The beer was a selection from the Pratchett fan’s refrigerator,
heavily weighted to the barley wines.

We all (except for Monte) enjoyed the show — it’s quite faithful to
the book, so I wasn’t in any suspense. I also wasn’t so riveted I
insisted on pausing it when Monte demanded to go out and look for
his Mommy. I did leave it in my Netflix streaming queue so that I
could go back and catch up, but haven’t yet felt obligated to do
that.

When you finish a streaming movie on Netflix, you get a chance
to rate it from one to 5 stars. I usually give things that turned
out about as well as I would have expected before I watched them
three stars, but I was feeling good enough about the evening as a
whole to suggest four. The Pratchett fan suggested five, but he
hardly ever sees movies at all, so he deferred to my judgement.
The non-fan said she’d enjoyed it but prefers movies to
not have people hanging by their fingernails off of tall
structures. Having clacks towers that people get pushed off of is
pretty integral to the plot of this book, so the rest of us
declined to downgrade the move on this ground.


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Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin Series

Daniel Abraham’s website has A
good synopsis of this series.

It’s projected to be 5 books, of which three have been
published. I finished the third, The Tyrant’s Law last
night.

Each chapter is from the point of view of one of four
characters. I remember finding the first volume, The Dragon’s Path, a
little slow to get into. And then I was muttering that some of
these point-of-view characters are more interesting than others.
In the second book (The
King’s Blood
), one of the point-of-view characters (Dawson
Kalliam) has died and been replaced by his wife, Clara. This is
an improvement, in that Clara is more interesting than Dawson.
Also, it removes the security you often feel in a long-running
series that of course they won’t kill off a major character. (At
least without the actor being interview in the newspaper.) George
R. R. Martin did the same thing by killing off Ned Stark, a main
character in The Song of Ice and Fire, at the end of
the first volume.

I (and apparently the Hugo award nominators) have been finding
multi-volume works really interesting these days. I always said I
liked novels better than short stories because you got a lot more
reading for the same work of figuring out who the characters are
and what their problems and relationships are. A multi-volume
series has the same advantage over a novel. Of course, some of
them can become repetitive, but with a good writer like Daniel
Abraham, it hasn’t happened yet in this series. Partly it’s because his gift
for describing places has different places to work on in each
volume. I’m also impressed that he manages to provide both more
character and more plot per page than a lot of writers do.

This series considers a lot of important questions like, “Why
do bankers have power?” and “How do wars get started?” Maybe the
last couple of books will explain how wars get ended, too. I’m
looking forward to the last two volumes.


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Books I read in December (and a bit of November)

2012-11-25 Sun Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy. From the
library. Well-written best-seller about two families in a small Irish
town.

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2012-11-26 Mon Norah Ephron Imaginary Friends, play about Mary
McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Probably better in the theater. From
the library – just after Ephron died they got a whole bunch of stuff
by her.

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2012-12-08 Sat Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, the latest in the
Barrayaran series by Lois McMaster Bujold. (bought from Baen) Brilliant – the last
Miles plot seemed to be mining a very exhausted vein, but this one
builds on the best of the earlier ones, and has both coming of age and
dealing with middle-age aspects.

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2012-12-10 Mon Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy. From the library.
More warm-hearted middle-aged to elderly females fixing the world’s
problems for the well-meaning young.

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2012-12-13 Thu The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. Got on sale
from Amazon after recommendation by Cory Doctorow (I think). Police
procedural set against the impending crash into earth of an asteroid.
Good but not gripping.

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I took most of an afternoon to revive my procedure for stripping DRM
from Kindle books. Most of it was because of how decrepit my
Thinkpad is. The answer turned out to be that you need current
versions of Kindle for PC, Calibre, the drm removing tools, and the
python library the tools depend on. Then you have to realize that for
that format of Kindle, Calibre can read it, and convert it, but the
ebook viewer can’t display it. So you should convert it to epub and
read that. Or ignore big sales on Kindle books.

2012-12-24 Mon Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, from the
library. Some of the methodology reminds me of the story about how
much senility increased in the UK after Margaret Thatcher’s
resignation as Prime Minister. One of their methods of determining
whether someone was senile was to ask them who the Prime Minister
was. Obviously, more people knew when it had been the same person for
15 years than when it had only been a few months. There are a couple of
hallucination stories that seem to be similar to that. There’s a man
whose cat had to go to the vets for a few days. While the cat was
gone, the man would hallucinate that he saw it walking across the
living room. Sacks says that the hallucination stopped when the cat
got home, but how does he know? Some of the cats walking across the
living room might have been hallucinations, but you wouldn’t
investigate that if your cat was at home and might perfectly well have
been going to the litter box.

A common form of auditory hallucination is to hear something that
sounds like a radio left on in another room. If you live in a
single-family home on a quiet street, you get up and go to all the
rooms with radios to see which one was left on and to turn it off.
But if you live in an apartment building on a noisy street, you hear
other people’s radios all the time. Some of them might be
hallucinations, but how would you tell?

My methodology quibble aside, I think it’s a good book. One
stated purpose is to make people more comfortable thinking about
(and maybe talking about) their neurological idiosyncrasies, and I
think it achieves that. I discussed it at dinner with two friends,
and it turned out that two of us have the visual hallucinations
before going to sleep and the third had no idea what we were
talking about.

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2012-12-25 Tue Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. I think it was his
first novel. I read it in high school, or possibly college, and
haven’t looked at it since, so I was surprised how vividly I
remembered some of the better bits. There are good reasons why I
haven’t reread it – the stuff between the good bits is very talky,
and mostly about issues that don’t concern me much, although certainly
it’s of historic interest how casually people in a Huxley novel
published in 1922 advocated ideas that we would label fascist.

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2012-12-25 Tue Finished Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson. I’ve
been reading this off and on between a lot of the above – it works
best a chapter at a time. It’s fascinating but a little bit
disappointing. We really don’t think about how much of late 20th
century technological change was fueled by World War II. He leaves
out the antibiotics, but everything easily related to computers is
mentioned. (bombs, weather prediction, stellar evolution, biological
evolution…)

But with a better editor or co-author, it could have been a better
book. Dyson doesn’t really explain anything they way the great
popular science books of the mid-twentieth century did. If you don’t
already know a lot about any of these subjects, you will come away
from the book with a vague idea about how general-purpose computers
helped develop them, and some interesting facts about the biographies
of the people who did the developing, but you still won’t know much
about the subject.

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2012-12-28 Fri Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier. I think I got
this from Gutenberg because someone wrote an essay about it in the NY
Times Book Review. You can see why someone who studies how people
write novels would find it interesting, that someone would have done
something that much like stream of consciousness in 1915. But it’s
really quite unpleasant. I thought about dropping it several times,
but somehow kept on to see how the throat-cutting came about.

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Tooth and Claw

This
book
by Jo Walton is a Victorian novel set on a world where
the biology actually supports the assumptions about gender
roles embodied in the Victorian novel. The characters are all
dragons, and dragons have a sexual dimorphism such that
females have hands and males have claws.

Walton acknowledges that she took the plot from Anthony
Trollope’s Framley
Parsonage
. In both books, the plot is a bit contrived —
the antagonist goes on fighting the protagonist until the
right number of pages has happened, and then gives in. This
makes the 300 page twentyfirst century book more readable than
the 400 page nineteenth century one, but they both describe
societies pretty alien to the modern reader.

If you enjoy both nineteenth century novels and world-building
science fiction, you will love this book. The electronic
version
is on sale for $2.99 for a limited time.


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A Tale Dark and Grimm

I’m glad Adam Gidwitz wrote this
book
, because I’m sure lots of people have thought about
writing something like it. It’s one of the natural reactions
to a body of work, like the pre-bowdlerized Grimm fairy tales,
that comes from a point of view that’s foreign yet completely
recognizable.

He strings nine or so of the original tales together so that
they happen to one family, and form a story arc about two
children who leave home, have adventures, and return older and
wiser. The actual text of the tales is pretty much a
translation, but the interstitial matter is in several
completely different voices, some of which (like the one that
keeps saying how awesome everything is) are pretty
irritating.

So one is tempted to say that for good writing, you should get
yourself a good translation of the original brothers Grimm,
except that then you would start fantasizing about writing a
book like this, and you very likely wouldn’t do any better
than Adam Gidwitz. Except that maybe you would clarify the
sense in which you were using “awsome”.

And some of the modern writing is actually pretty good, and
does illuminate what speaks to the modern sensibility about
the primeval tale. For instance, here’s the commentary on how
Hansel and Gretel feel when they get home and the parents
apologize for cutting off their heads:

It will happen to you, dear reader, at some point in your
life. You will face a moment very much like the one Hansel and
Gretel are facing right now.

In this moment, you will look at your parents and realize
that — no matter what it sounds like they are saying — they
are actually asking you for forgiveness. This is a very painful
moment. You see, all of your life you’ve been asking for
forgiveness from them. From the age you can talk you are
apologizing for breaking this, forgetting that, hitting him,
locking her in the garage, and so on. So, having them ask
you for forgiveness probably sounds pretty good.

But when this moment comes, you will probably be in a
lot of pain. And you probably will not want to forgive
them.

In which case, what, you might ask, should you do?

Well, you could yell at them, and tell them about all the
ways they’ve hurt you. This is a good thing to do once, because
— believe me — they need to know. But this is the first step
on the road to forgiveness. What if you’re not even ready for
that?

You could pretend to forgive them. This I would not
recommend. It’s sort of like sweeping broken glass under the
carpet; the floor still isn’t clean, and somebody’s going to end
up with a bloody sock.

Finally, if you don’t want to forgive them, and you don’t
want to fake it, you can always go with Ol’ Reliable: Changing
the subject.


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My Hugo award votes

The posts were thin for a while there, and one of the things I
was doing instead of posting was reading all the Hugo award nominees so that
I could vote by the July 31 deadline. Here are my votes, with some comments on why.

Best novel

  1. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I
    actually probably enjoyed a couple of the others more than this
    one, but the writing was so good I decided it was more award-worthy.
  2. Wake by Robert J. Sawyer. If you want to cite
    a good example of “computer-science fiction”, this would be it.
  3. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century
    America
    by Robert Charles Wilson
  4. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. The description I
    had of this before I read it was that it was a steampunk vampire
    novel set in 19th century Seattle. Based on that, I wasn’t
    expecting to enjoy it, but I actually did. Partly because it
    isn’t really a vampire novel, but a novel about the kind of
    communities that can form in the face of danger (which in this
    case is vampires).
  5. The City & The City by China Miéville. I had
    heard of China Miéville as an impressive writer, and this was
    the first thing I’d read of his. The writing is very good, with both
    characters and images that stick with you, but
    I downranked it as an award winner because the plot never really
    made much sense.
  6. No award. I like this part of voting. You can not only
    vote for the ones you like, but vote against the ones you don’t
    like by rating them after “No award.”
  7. Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente. This is
    the only one I didn’t manage to finish, so my apologies if
    something wonderfully exciting happens after page 150. It
    wasn’t very interesting, but the writing was very dense, so it
    was taking a lot longer than the typical novel of that length
    takes, and I wasn’t enjoying it, so I stopped reading it and
    voted against it.

Best Novella

  1. Vishnu at the Cat Circus by Ian McDonald.
    Another good example of “computer-science fiction”. Set in
    near-future India.
  2. Act One by Nancy Kress
  3. Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James
    Morrow
  4. The God Engines by John Scalzi. Well-written
    by an author I usually like, but a somewhat unpleasant
    atmosphere.
  5. No Award
  6. The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker. This
    seemed like steam-punk for its own sake.
  7. Palimpsest by Charles Stross. A time travel
    story without much I could see to recommend it.

Best Novelette

With these shorter forms, I wouldn’t have read them except for
the Hugo voting, but they’re really pretty good.

  1. The Island by Peter Watts
  2. Overtime by Charles Stross
  3. Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky
  4. One of Our Bastards is Missing by Paul Cornell
  5. Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask,
    Gentleman, Beast
    by Eugie Foster
  6. No award
  7. It Takes Two by Nicola Griffith. I wasn’t at
    all sure that this was a science fiction story at all, so I
    voted against it.

Best Short Story

  1. Bridesicle by Will McIntosh
  2. The Bride of Frankenstein by Mike Resnick
  3. Non-Zero Probabilities by N.K. Jemisin
  4. Spar by Kij Johnson
  5. The Moment by Lawrence M. Schoen

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Luckily, the ones of these that I wouldn’t have made a point of
seeing anyway were all on Netflix Watch Now, so it didn’t cost me
anything except the time.

  1. District 9 Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell; Directed by Neill Blomkamp
  2. Moon Screenplay by Nathan Parker; Story by Duncan Jones; Directed by
    Duncan Jones. This was the most like a real science fiction story,
    although it wasn’t as good a movie as District 9.
  3. Star Trek Screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman; Directed by J.J. Abrams
  4. No award
  5. Avatar Screenplay and Directed by James
    Cameron. I didn’t go to the theater to see it in 3D, but I
    don’t see how even better special effects could have redeemed
    the banal plot and characters.
  6. UpScreenplay by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter; Story by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter & Thomas McCarthy; Directed by Bob Peterson & Pete
    Docter. Disney tear-jerker. I don’t know why it’s science fiction.

Summary

Some day I’ll be organized enough to start the reading early
enough to vote on some of the other categories. But if you want
to know what’s happening in science fiction, you can do a lot
worse than get an associate membership to the convention of the
year (Aussiecon,
this year). It cost $50 this year, and they gave me free electronic
versions of all the print nominees.