May 30, 2017

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

I know this might piss some people off, but I'm just gonna put it out there: I think David Mitchell does Neil Gaiman better than Neil Gaiman.

I've long admired Mitchell's writing; Cloud Atlas blew me away, and The Bone Clocks cemented my love for his oddly weird novels. Slade House showed me how masterful this writer really is, the way he can get you so comfy-cozy with his totally relatable characters and then turn everything on its side so quickly you don't know which way is up and aren't sure you ever will again. Black Swan Green is rather less supernatural than those novels, more like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in that respect, but retains a supernatural feeling just as well as any of them. It's uncanny. And lord knows I'm not and never have been a thirteen-year-old English schoolboy, but for the span of this novel I absolutely was. Having a background of being bullied definitely helped, but Jason's voice is just so real and addictive that I can't imagine anybody not falling into it immediately.

Jason Taylor: poet, promising young student, stutterer, nearly friendless, younger child of a dissolving marriage. We live in Jason's footsteps for one full year of his life, and what a doozy of a year it is. Terminally uncool, Jason's one ardent wish is to simply sneak through life undetected. Getting noticed is never a good thing when you're a favorite target of bullies and sneered at by the popular kids. Jason's mind is a pretty fascinating place to live. Some of it is uncomfortably familiar (read: the psychology of being bullied) and some it totally out of this world. We are emotional putty in David Mitchell's hands. This is just another example of his mastery of fiction.

Buy it from my favorite bookstore!

May 21, 2017

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

A tad heavy-handed and positively laden with tropes, The Invisible Library is still a fun little fantasy romp sure to push all the right buttons for many readers. Irene, our imperfect heroine, is an agent of the Library, an entity that stands apart from normal time and space. Librarians collect books from across the alternate worlds, and there are many, many alternate worlds, each with its own blend of science and magic. When she's saddled with a student and sent on a rather opaque mission to a quarantined alternate, things go awry. Fast.

The story manages to be both original and highly derivative at the same time. Certain aspects we've seen again and again from fantasy writers, but there's enough new material to make the book enjoyable. I'd be surprised if anyone who isn't a bookworm could really get into it, if only because the premise of the Library, a main character in and of itself, is to simply save and love books. There are about a bajillion literature references, of course, making it practically nonsensical to anyone who doesn't read much or at least have a pretty good knowledge of Western literature. The writing is nicely descriptive and there's certainly a lot of action to keep things moving along. But readers with a lot of fantasy books under their belt will probably be more exasperated than thrilled with the theatrics. We've read this story, over and over; there's just not enough originality to lift it above the quotidian. Readers who aren't generally drawn to fantasy might find this a little more interesting; it certainly appeals due to its average length when stacked up against behemoths like The Wheel of Time or The Song of Ice and Fire. I'd recommend this to the rather specific subset of reader who loves books but doesn't read widely in fantasy; most others will want to look elsewhere.

May 13, 2017

Family, Genus, Species; by Kevin Allardice

There's a lot packed into this very slim book's pages, and I was extremely impressed by all of it. Vee, our heroine, is at her nephew's birthday party in the Berkeley hills. Though her relationship with her sister is strained, she adores little Charlie and can't wait until he sees the magnificent dinosaur model she brought him. It starts out funny and sort of sweet, and then shit starts hitting the fan, and then abruptly escalates.

The layers in this novella are many, but the one I found most captivating is the theme of self-narration. We are all the protagonist in our own story; to others, we are bit characters, sidekicks, nemeses, and so forth, but never the main character. And since no one can read another's mind or truly step into their shoes, we tell ourselves stories about each of these other players in our lives. An example: Vee and her boyfriend ended their first date at her sister's Christmas party, drunkenly getting it on in a back room. During the act, someone walks in on them; Vee goes limp but her boyfriend keeps going; the door quickly closes again. To Vee, this is a split second of the day she met the man she later fell in love with. To the person who walked in on them, it looked an awful lot like rape. A rape that person then proceeded to ignore, which ate at him enough so that he felt the need to approach Vee at the birthday party and tell her what he saw and insist that he's a good guy because he's telling her that right now. To that man, Vee and this possible rape he witnessed is a story in his own life, not hers, one that he can refer to to illuminate something he feels is in his character, to make him feel better about himself.

I was especially impressed with Allardice's commentary on the fat woman as a sexual being. Vee is fat, and knows this well. She's used to men fetishizing her body while ignoring the person inside it, and aware that women who fall outside the very narrow spectrum of socially acceptable beauty are expected to be grateful for sexual attention. From these men's perspectives, too, her experience holds no value on its own, and to insist otherwise would be to violate their sense of self.

All this runs underneath a pretty brutal satire of white hipsters in the Bay Area, who cultivate their urban farms with honest intent but leave the people with whom they share their city to flounder, be marginalized, murdered. And then of course the book is quite funny in parts, proving again how multifaceted this novella is. I look forward to reading more from Kevin Allardice.

May 9, 2017

Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus is Professor Harari's follow-up to the blockbuster (at least by sociology's standards) Sapiens. Instead of "A Brief History of Humankind," this is "A Brief History of Tomorrow," Harari's vision of where our present might lead us, based on our past thus far. His prediction: having done away with plague, famine, and war (more or less), humans will now look to attain immortality, bliss, and divinity. We are not, Harari proves, all that far off from any of these goals.

While life expectancy and general health keep improving, the possible lifespan of a human being has not changed at all. Though few and far between, ancient Egyptians and even Mesopotamians were quite capable of living into their eighties, just as we are now. But simple good health won't be enough anymore, at least not for humanity's ultra-rich elite. Why settle for winkles when you can have smooth skin? Indeed, why settle for any less than perfect body part or organ if you could heal or replace them and remain twenty-five until some unnatural death visits you? We already replace joints and hearts with those of other animals' or artificial copies, it's not such a leap forward for the wealthy to keep replacing parts as long as they can.

Bliss is arguably the easiest attained of these new goals. We're already doing it: drugs. I'm sorry, medication. Our burgeoning knowledge of chemistry and physiology allows us to medicate all sorts of mental ills; even carefully applied electricity can work wonders on the brain's neural activity. Why should anyone be miserable when they can just swallow a little pill and feel good again? Why should we tolerate the occasional accidents caused by tired truck drivers or plane pilots when we can create lasting focus and wakefulness with a cap that sends weak electrical pulses through the brain?

Divinity...this dream is a little less attainable. Omniscience might be a better word to describe what Harari is talking about. The speed with which humanity learns new things seems to be increasing at an exponential rate. In his example of the internet, he reminds us that twenty years ago it was nearly unheard of and poorly understood. Now the whole world runs online, most jobs and people depend on it in some way or another, and many of us are irrevocably attached to it. Similarly with biology, we barely understand our own bodies but our knowledge is growing every single day. For at least an elite class, cursed with extremely long lives and the ability to medicate themselves into any mental state they wish, the realm of knowledge will be the last real playground.

Harari's writing is, as in his first book, highly engaging. He's utterly brilliant, but speaks to the layman with great ease: "If modernity has a motto, it is 'shit happens.'" (pg. 200) His explanation of group dynamics is fascinating, particularly in his descriptions of how democracy works and the delusions people feed themselves to justify suffering in the name of nationalism (pg. 302). Did you know that sick people tend to vote more conservatively? Seriously. It's on page 339.

My one hang up about this book is something Harari says early on but then seems to work off the opposite assumption for the rest of the book. He notes that in the age of steam, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, people thought of the human body and mind in terms of steam, because that was the dominant technology of the day. Hence Freud's theories on pent up sexual frustrations finally boiling to a head at some random moment. Similarly, we talk of our bodies and minds in the language of computers - we act the way our genes program us to, we have different systems that have separate functions but report to the motherboard of our brain. It's the technology du jour, so that's the way we see things. But then Harari goes on for the entire rest of the book to talk about the mind as a set of algorithms, and goes on at great length about this fact plus reminds us of it frequently. Didn't he just say that we shouldn't fall into the trap of describing ourselves in terms of our technology because it's just a metaphor and might not be how things actually work? Or is he saying that this time, we're right and we really are just incredibly complex computers? I wish he would have explained this contradiction more thoroughly. Still, it's another superb read and I recommend anyone interested in the future of humanity (everyone, yes?) to pick it up.