Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fiction I Read in March

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

by Cory Doctorow
Published in 2005
Published by Tor

This is the third Cory Doctorow novel I've read (after Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Little Brother), and somehow it seems both the most Cory Doctorowiest and the least mainstream of the three. It takes place in Doctorow's native Ontario, delves deep into topics that Doctorow is passionate about, and contains weirdness of a sort that many readers will find odd and perplexing.

Alan is the name our protagonist is most commonly known by. He's an eccentric sort of person who arrives in a new neighborhood in Toronto and befriends the local oddballs. He's owned a variety of small businesses and sees himself as a tinkerer and craftsman. When he meets local oddball Kurt, who plans to blanket Toronto in free wifi (bear in mind this novel was written in the pre-smartphone era), the two of them join forces.

At one point Alan describes his family in this way:

Alan's father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine -- he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean. His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune-teller, and an island. He only had two or three family portraits, but he treasured them, even if outsiders who saw them often mistook them for landscapes. There was one where his family stood on his father's slopes, Mom out in the open for a rare exception, a long tail of extension cords snaking away from her to the cave and the diesel generator's three-prong outlet. He hung it over the mantel, using two hooks and a level to make sure that it came out perfectly even.

You probably think he's speaking in metaphors. When I first read this, I thought he was speaking in metaphors, too.

He's not.

You see, Alan comes from 'mountain folk'.

He has no belly button.

His neighbor Mimi is a lady with wings.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a novel of consistent, very well-done surrealism, greatly informed by the mood of old folktales while at the same time not only putting them in a modern setting, but also making making the folktales themselves almost modern.


by Peter Watts
Published in 1999
Published by Tor Books

Deep down, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, hydrothermal vents exist where tectonic plates are moving apart. Amid the bizarre sea creatures of the deep, power stations have been built that now, in the mid-to-late 21st century, supply most of the planet with electricity.

The people who work down here are surgically modified to exist in the water outside with a minimum of protective equipment; most notably, they have a lung removed and replaced by machinery to filter oxygen from water. But what are more important are their psychological profiles. Research has concluded that happy, chipper people are dangerously unfit for life in the deep. Rather, the focus has been on training the psychologically damaged. The abused. Victims of child molestation. Abusers. Pedophiles. These are the sorts of people who maintain the equipment down there. They find, in the deep, a calm that had always evaded them up on dry land.

This is not happy, optimistic science fiction. This is horror. There are honest-to-God sea monsters down there. Not to mention the psychological tension and continual sense of unease that pervades the book. You don't read Peter Watts for a happy fun time.

I like Peter Watts in controlled doses. In the second half of Starfish, an overarching plot of truly epic scope begins to coalesce. Starfish is the first volume in what is known as the Rifters trilogy, which I cheerfully await making my way through over the next few weeks.

The Girl Who Played Go

by Shan Sa
translated by Adriana Hunter
Published in 2001

Manchuria, 1937. One of our protagonists is a teenage Chinese girl who plays Go in her village square. The other is a Japanese officer, sent to Manchuria to hunt down anti-Japanese elements disguised as local peasantry.

(Historical Context Note. In 1937 Manchuria was nominally an independent country and ally of Japan. In reality Manchuria had been broken away from China by Japanese effort, and its government was basically a puppet of Tokyo. At the time of the events in the novel, the outbreak of full-scale war between Japan and China is just weeks away.)

Our female protagonist is anxious about her own future. Her best friend appears doomed to be married to a man from her rustic hometown that her father found for her. Her sister is married to a local bigshot who is blatantly cheating on her. Our protagonist becomes involved with two local anti-Japanese revolutionaries. As might be expected, she does not exactly find true love with either.

Our male protagonist's romantic exploits include enjoying the company of prostitutes, though he does longingly look back on a certain geisha back in Japan. His letters back home reveal the nationalistic Japanese mindset, and one thing I can say to Shan Sa's credit is that while the cruelty of the Japanese forces is spelled out in some detail, the book never feels like a piece of anti-Japanese propaganda.

By the time our two protagonists finally meet, the novel is at its halfway point. Events happen. There is fighting. In the final pages there is a coincidence so improbable that you know you're reading a work of fiction. Even so, you saw it coming. And that's OK. You know you're reading a novel in which everything happens for a purpose, generally to make things horrible for the main characters to see how they react.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

'You think you're better than me?'

I enjoy reading the Captain Awkward blog. It's become my favorite practical, down-to-earth advice column, and it's one of those rare blogs with comment sections that are almost uniformly well-written and enlightening.

Recently CA published a letter from a young woman who didn't drink alcohol, and was tired of having to justify her not-drinking to others at social occasions. (She was not bothered by other people drinking, and did not lecture others on the dangers of The Demon, Drink.) Apparently, some people are offended by what other people bring into their own bodies, and will keep being offended until they get a reasonable-sounding explanation. And this happens repeatedly.

Fun fact: Some people like to drink this. And some people don't. Feel free to talk about which group you belong to and why, but nobody actually has to submit a defense justifying their choice.

So I wonder, why do people take other people's choices personally? I understand that if a bunch of people are drinking and one person doesn't drink alcohol, the abstainer might be in for a little ribbing -- and the level of ribbing that is acceptable depends on the personalities of the people and the nature of the relationships involved. And if a line is crossed, then that person (the ribber) is being an asshole. That's basic just human relations.

But why act offended when you're drinking and someone else isn't (and doesn't think it's necessary to give you an explanation for their abstinence you find acceptable)? I don't get it. Maybe it's a sense that drinking is a group bonding activity and the non-drinker is sabotaging things?

But the problem with that hypothesis is that, as several people point out in the comments, vegetarians get the same sort of crap from people. As 'cloudninja9' writes: 'People are terrible to me sometimes (questioning my patriotism, telling me I have an eating disorder, making fun of me on and off for hours, trying to force me to try it)'. 'Bluecandles' responds: 'I try to avoid telling people I’m vegetarian if possible because I often get a whole bunch of questions to get me to justify it, or look at me as if I’m judging them for their eating meat. I have had people get real touchy about it and look at me suspiciously as they eat their meal. I don’t say anything or care about how they eat, but they take offence all the same.'

First, 'questioning my patriotism'? What the hell?

Second... no, same as the first. I'm an omnivore who occasionally drinks alcohol, and this is one of those times when I am genuinely baffled, both how someone comes to the conclusion that they should treat a person in a certain way, and how they justify it to themselves afterwards. My 'social bonding' theory is inadequate.

Fun fact: Some people like to eat this. And some people don't. Feel free to talk about which group you belong to and why, but nobody actually has to submit a defense justifying their choice.

Maybe it's because people have a mental image of 'vegetarians' as 'people who go around hectoring others that they shouldn't eat meat and are bad people for doing so'. But I have known many strict vegetarians in my life, and not a single one has tried to 'convert' me to their diet, or implied that I was a bad person for eating meat.

Now, maybe it's the case that 90% of self-described vegetarians want to make meat-eaters feel bad, and it's just plain good luck that I've managed to avoid meeting one. Fine. Let's assume that. If 90% of vegetarians go around judging omnivores, once the words 'I'm a vegetarian' are out of a person's mouth, are the words 'And I think it's JUST DISGUSTING that freaks like YOU eat meat' so inevitable that you're 100% justified in preemptively taking offense?

(Hint: The answer is 'no'.)

Several years ago, some journalist (I believe it may have been Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post) in an online chat proposed a theory that I didn't think much of at the time. This journalist was a meat-eater who was troubled by doubts about the moral rightness of eating meat. He suspected that most meat-eaters were similarly troubled, but most of them had taken these doubts and hidden them away behind sturdy psychological walls of prickly defensiveness. These meat-eaters look down on evangelical vegetarians who lecture about the wrongness of being a carnivore. They attribute all sorts of silly stereotypes to these vegetarians, and are happy that by eating meat, at least they're nothing like THOSE people.

So you put one of these prickly meat-eaters on a collision course with a real-life vegetarian, one who has no interest in preaching, and what happens? Their defensive alarms get set off and they become one of those people that 'cloudninja9' and 'bluecandles' describe.

'You're a vegetarian, huh? You think you're better than me?'

When I first read this viewpoint, I thought the journalist was overthinking things, perhaps projecting a bit onto other people. Now, I think he's onto something.

Especially since you could replace 'meat' with 'alcohol' and the theory still holds up. The reason for inwardly doubting the morality of drinking alcohol is different, but everything follows from there in pretty much the same way.

'Don't like drinking, huh? What's your excuse? You don't have one? Fine, go be morally superior somewhere else.'

I don't have any particular advice for the original letter-writer, but I do want to close with the words that the Captain Awkward advice columnist finished with:

Whenever someone behaves like that, I wonder, are they really THAT insecure about what they like? If the people in your life love drinking so much, they can do it without your validation or participation. Someone making a different choice than you would make is not invalidating your choices.

Feel free to replace 'drinking' with 'eating meat'... or anything else, really.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fiction I Read in February

The Family Trade
by Charles Stross
Published in 2004
Published by Tor Books

Famed book cover art model Charles Stross is also a science fiction writer of some note. His book The Family Trade is the first installment in his 'Merchant Princes' series. Actually, to be precise, it's more like half of the first installment -- don't buy this book expecting anything other than a cliffhanger and a 'TO BE CONTINUED'.

I'm impressed by what Stross has done here. The Family Trade starts off with a plot right out of Hackneyed Fantasy For Dummies. Our heroine, IT trade journalist Miriam Beckstein, is having a horrible day. She gets fired for exposing a money laundering scheme that, as it turns out, her boss was involved in. Everything's going to hell. Then she finds a magic locket that her dead mother owned. Seriously.

And then the whole thing turns out to be a science fiction story about development economics.

Imagine a parallel-universe Earth with a severely-skewed history, a 21st Century in which North America is lightly populated with poor European peasants. In the grand castles that dot the landscape live the Clan, a group of wealthy families with the ability to jump between their world and ours. In their world, they are the aristocratic elite. On our side, they are a Mafia-like crime family.

In our world, they make their money through drug smuggling. In their world, they live in tacky luxury and watch 'Dallas' reruns while the peasantry lives lives not appreciably different from medieval Europe.

Our protagonist Miriam learns, upon finding the locket that allows her to travel between Earths, that her birth parents were scions of these families. When they learn of her existence, her blood relatives expect her to take her rightful place in their crime syndicate. This is an offer she cannot refuse: birthright is everything in this culture. Miriam's parents were assassinated in an inter-clan feud, and now that her existence is widely known, she would be in grave danger if she gave up the family's protection.

 She can't run from the parallel world her family lords over, but she can try to change it. The merchant princes' understanding of economics does not extend beyond the notion 'we like gold', a fact that frustrates Earl Roland, Harvard-educated lord whose attempts to instigate reform have led to his being sidelined within his own family. Together, Miriam and Roland vow to apply development economics to the unfortunate peasantry, but to do so they must master the labyrinthine medieval politics of the Clan.

...and that's as far as we get in this first installment.

by China Mieville
Published in 2011
Published by Pan MacMillan

After a decade of dancing around the edges of the genre of science fiction, winning himself numerous fans and a Hugo Award in the process, China Mieville finally jumps all the way into the genre with Embassytown, a novel with honest-to-god aliens and spaceships and everything.

It's been a month since I finished this book and I find the characters are receding into the mists. It's not that the book suffers from poor characterization. It doesn't. Rather, China Mieville, who has always been an author of grandly detailed worldbuilding (each of his novels that I've read is centered around a lovingly described, richly detailed fictional city), has this time created a universe that thoroughly overshadows any person who lives within it. There are characters in this book, and they do things which are interesting, but I can't help but feel why should I talk about them when I can talk about the setting?

The Ariekei are the native inhabitants of the planet Arieka. Although they themselves never invented space travel, there is a sizable community of aliens, mostly humans, living within the planet's largest city in an area called Embassytown. Primarily a trading post, base of the interstellar trade in the living machines that the Ariekei breed, Embassytown has been home to generations of humans, the race who make up the bulk of the alien community on Arieka.

The Ariekei are not so terribly important in the galactic scheme of things, but they are seen as a curiosity among linguists due to their Language. They never truly learned to think symbolically. They never developed a written language; they don't even understand pointing at things. Their Language is not capable of metaphors, but it does have similes, and any person who finds it difficult to remember the difference between a simile and a metaphor will never have that problem again after reading this book.

Rather than being symbolic communication, Language is a very direct link between words and thoughts. An Ariekei can not say something it knows to be untrue, any more than a human can believe something she knows to be untrue. Ariekei invite humans to Festivals of Lies so they can watch them tell obvious falsehoods (for example, about a red cloth: 'It is blue'). They find it great, mind-bending fun.

A note about these humans. Human linguists can program computers to pronounce Language perfectly, but to the Ariekei, it's just meaningless babble. As a consequence of Language being a direct auditory extension of thought, Ariekei can only understand Language when it is spoken by a being with conscious will. The problem here is that the Ariekei have two mouths and they speak with both simultaneously.

As a result, all communication between humans and Ariekei go through a small number of Ambassadors, pairs of human clones whose minds have been linked from infancy so that they may act and think as one person. Embassytown locals think this is perfectly normal. Offworlders think it is weird and creepy to have a small caste of dual-bodied people hold so much power.

When outsiders try to break into this Ambassador racket, the main plot of Embassytown begins in earnest, as the unanticipated consequences begin to pile up.

Mieville spends the first hundred or so pages carefully laying out this universe: the world of the remote planet Arieka, its weird inhabitants, their society, and their Language. And then he proceeds to solemnly and methodically wreck the planet's society in an escalating crisis that leads the reader to fear the worst for this poor planet, before he finishes off with the closest thing to a happy ending that appears in any of the four Mieville novels I've read.