Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book: Powers by Ursula LeGuin

Nebula winner in 2009. A slave is freed, then has adventures. Live in forest for a while, then with his original people in a marsh.

Book: A Dog in a Hat by Joe Parkin

A story of bike racing in Europe in the late 80s. A great, if not always convincing, series of anecdotes.

Book: Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost

Fantasy, metafiction. An interesting idea: A mostly water-covered world with stretches (spirals) of bridges on which people live. Oddly reminiscent of William Gibson's Bay Bridge colony. This is book 1 of 2. I'll read #2, but the ending of this one was slightly sour tasting.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book: The God Engines by John Scalzi

A short (novella-length), dark take on a universe populated by living gods, who motivate space ships and are disciplined by, well, physical discipline.

The work is in very sharp contrast to Scalzi's often aw-shucks tone on Whatever, his blog, and substantially darker in tone than most of his other fiction.

Not that I insist on dark work, but if you're gonna do it, guts and blood and faith shattering is probably the way to do it.


Book: 2010 Nebula Awards

As with most of these collections, some very excellent stuff and some not so great. Oddly, the ones I was most eager to find more of were the young adult books. Maybe I'm regressing?

In the Jane Austen/monster mashup category was "Pride and Prometheus". Interesting mostly for focusing on Mary Bennett, who's rafrely given much narrative space.

Book: The Bradbury Report by Steven Polansky

If the US starts creating clones of everyone to be used for replacement organs, what happens when a clone escapes?

Angst, apparently.

A few interesting ideas here, not hugely well explored. Not to mention pretty unappealing characters.

Book: Economics for the Rest of Us by Moshe Adler

Subtitled "Debunking the Science that Makes Life Dismal", this book is a pithy assault on modern (and classical, as I understand it) microeceonomics, and how the theories pushed by mainstream economists provide grist for the policies that insist a few homeless are small price to pay for an "efficient" housing market, or that people unemployed in a recession are just asking for too much.

Not gonna blow the lid off economic orthodoxy, but definitely a useful perspective on some of the economic dogma that underlies many policies.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Movie: A Serious Man

I love the Coen Brothers. I didn't love this movie. I was tickled by the jewish references, but overall, forgot this film as soon as I saw it.

Book: Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard

No one has the patience for torturing his characters like Ballard.

This book could be read as a backhanded swat at environmentalists (and in a way it is), but seems to me to be more of a out some bugs in a jar and see what happens kind of thing. Makes me want to read more Ballard.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

Morgan is best known for his Takeshi Kovacs series of far-future sci-fi stuff.

I was surprised to realize that this is a fantasy. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that it carries over the grit and cartoony chaos of the Kovacs stuff. It's not often that your (male) main character is not only gay, but actually gets to have sex.

The plot is occasionally confusing, but pretty much comes back together at the end. There's no indication of it on the book itself, but according to Wikipedia, it's the first of a trilogy.

Nomadic horse clans are the new elves.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Movie: Zombieland

Enjoyable. No attempt to answer any of the questions of why or how, but an entertaining action-comedy anyway.

These guys are pretty good shots.

Book: First Contact by Evan Mandery


Occasionally amusing. Fundamentally pretty disposable. Chock full of Simpsons references.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Movie: Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog's Antarctica documentary. He spends way more time interviewing the strange characters he meets than I expected. Still, he manages to draw out some interesting stories. He does spend a little too much effort trying to raise the emotional significance of the events his interviewees are describing. Still, there is some incredible footage in the film, and he makes liberal but apposite use of the footage from the Shackleton expedition.

The penguin scene is amazing. And the seal calls are mind-boggling.

Overall, more restrained than I expected, but not devoid of Herzogian craziness.

Book: Feed by Mira Grant

We all know what happens when the zombies attack. But what happens later, after they're beaten back (but not eliminated)?

This book examines that question. Set 20 years after the zombies come, it's the story of George and Shaun Mason, intrepid bloggers and pokers of dead things with sticks. They get selected to be embedded in the presidential campaign of a Wisconsin senator, and find much travails in the process.

The plot is uneven, and the villain (as well as some of the other characters) is not hugely believable, but the world's pretty compelling, and the main characters are great.

There's an interesting parallel in how they learn to live with the zombie infestation (caused by a virus), and how we've learned to live with AIDS. Not the same thing, obviously, but at least one story of a kid born infected rang true.


Book: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

Pretty much exactly as one would expect.

Nebula winners

As I think is correct, the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi won Best Novel.

I haven't mentioned reading it, but “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster won best Novelette. I actually heard this story on Escape Pod, and it definitely rose above the standard fare.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book: WWW: Wake by Robert Sawyer

The last (I think) in my reading of the Hugo Best Novel nominees. I had mixed feelings about this one. The main character (a teenage girl whose sight is restored by technological intervention) is well-drawn and pretty compelling. The awakening of the web (or whatever's going on here) is less convincing.

It's the first in a trilogy. I'm reserving judgment, but I don't think it rises to the level of Windup Girl or The City & The City.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Book: Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson

Since I made it a point to read all the Nebula Award nominees, I might as well read all the Hugo nominees as well. This is one that was nominated for the latter, not the former.

The setting is the late 22nd century, after the collapse of the hydrocarbon economy (caled here "the Age of Efflorescence") has devastated the world. North America is united as a United States where the power rests on a triumverate of the Dominion (a sort of State Christianity) the Army, and a Caesarian presidency. Technology seems to be around the level of the mid 19th century.

The narrator, Adam Hazzard, is explicitly naive, and his naivete colors the tone of the book, making it read almost like a Young Adult novel. Hazzard grown up friends with the title character, who's the son of the president's murdered brother. The two (along with Comstock's faithful retainer Sam) are forced to run from their village, and end up having adventures, up to and including Comstock assuming his uncle's position.

The portrayal of a post-industrial society is somewhat interesting, but I felt it was let down by the cheeseballness of the narration, as well as the clumsy foreshadowing.

Book: Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

A pretty respectable near-future dystopia.

A superflu causes the US to create a buffer zone on the border with Mexico. A town (Santa Olivia) that's left in the zone (as recreation for a military base close by) is the setting for the story of a girl's coming of age.

The girl's the daughter of an escaped military experiment, and therefore pretty tough.

The ending's a touch ex machina, but the story's still an interesting take. Plus, since it's Carey, there's the requisite perviness.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book: A Fictional History of the United States (with big chunks missing) By T Cooper and Adam Mansbach (editors)

I got this book because my friend Paul LaFarge had a piece in it. Plus, playing with history appeals to me. Unfortunately, few of the stories in the book really play with history. They're mostly a series of (a)historical fictions masquerading as metahistory, or critical history.

Paul's stands out as the one real alternate take on the history. He muses on the "discovery" of America. It was possibly the Icelanders, or the Danes, or the Chinese. Or maybe the Libyans.

The other stories in the book vary pretty drastically in tone and quality. Standouts are Alexander Chee's explanation for how many Native Americans were actually descendants of Chinese explorers is one particularly good one, as is Kate Bornstein's tale of Huck Finn as a transvestite prostitute.

Overall, though, neither the critique of history it sets out to be, nor as entertaining as a well-done satire could have been.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book: Reappraisals by Tony Judt

A collection of reviews and essays by someone I've never read before.

Interspersed among biographical sketches of various postwar Jewish intellectuals are a few essays of real interest. His takes on Belgium: that most of its citizens' allegiances are to their subregion (starting at Wallonian/Flandrian and devolving from there) rather than the nation; and Israel: that the Yom Kippur war was the moment at which Israel started down the path of international pariah.

He seems to claim to a hope that Liberals can anchor the left end of the political spectrum without the center shifting drastically rightward seem badly out of date, however.

He does throw down a deliciously nasty assault on Althusser, though.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Book: Muse and Reverie by Charles De Lint

De Lint is possibly my favorite of the "urban fantasy" (meaning fantasy set in contemporary times) authors.

This collection, set in Newford, his main universe, has its moments, but would be a poor entry into his work. De Lint also has the unfortunate tendency to belabor his stories with a moral.

Book: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

One of the Hugo nominees I had not read.

The fascinating story of a communicable disease, sort of. People are afflicted (?) with a map of a fragment of a city (known as Palimpsest)in a parallel dimension (or in another world, or something) as a mark on their skin. The map is a sexually-transmitted disease. But everyone has a different fragment of the city. When you fall asleep after having sex with someone with a map, you enter the city in your dreams. But the things that happen to you there (like losing fingers) have an effect in the "real" world.

When you first enter the city, you're grouped with 3 other people. You can only enter the city permanently by finding the other three in the real world.

The way people deal in the everyday world with the effects of the disease is quite interesting. Palimpsest is drawn mostly in fragments (perhaps echoing the marks on the characters' skin).

One rare element is man-on-man sex. Tastefully drawn, to be sure, but much more rare, in general, than its lesbian counterpart (which also appears).

Book: Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen

Early Hiaasen, with all the stuff that makes him great.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Five dollar friday: Chaos Royale

I like the idea of A Tiny Revolution's Five Dollar Friday. Each Friday, I'll donate $5 to someone creating stuff and giving it away on the internet.

This week's donation: Chaos Royale. A guy, or group, or something who creates really grimy, loud, thrashful dancy-type stuff. It's music from a really scary future. It makes my head explode, in a good way.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This movie had some fucked-up stuff going on. And I could have lived without the last 45 seconds. But definitely worth seeing.

Spoilers below:

Funding fun

Some guy at some website proposes spending $5 every friday by giving it to someone who's doing something interesting (or worthwhile) and giving it away for free. Sounds like a great idea. I'll give it a try!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book: Sound of Water by Sanjay Bahadur

A mining accident in India through the eyes of several different people, none of them much likable.

The author's a former mining bureaucrat, and it shows. 

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross

Humanity's extinct. The solar system's populated by its creations and their descendants. (Robots, in other words)

A great universe. The story's somewhat confusing, but certainly entertaining.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Musicals and sf

Great post by Hal Duncan at Charlie STorss's site about how he wrote a musical. And about how he wrote a screenplay, because, as he says,
the main reason I wrote it is because "gay kid" and "high school movie" don't mix in Hollywood. (I know this for a fact cause if you Google those strings the top hit is a post on my blog -- not an IMDB entry or a proper review, but a post on my fucking blog -- and I know how low my traffic is. But that's another rant.) Every last scrap of sanity in me says that trying to sell such a project is an act of utter folly. But fuck it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book: Metatropolis edited by John Scalzi

A group of five novellas (novelettes?) set in a shared, post-peak oil world.

This collection was initially released as an audiobook, I think. Not sure it makes a difference, though.

The works explore the future of cities after the end of expanding capitalism. Right down my alley, for sure. What do you do with skyscrapers when the concentration of labor's no longer required?

There's a lot of casting about for alternative economic and physical structures.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Book: Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

A young adult book, with the stylistic bluntness that target often implies. Still an entertaining quest story with African overtones. If I knew any 13-year olds I might give them this book.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book: Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Workwomanlike steampunk.

Book: Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman

Six of six in my reading of Nebula Nominees. This is a more than competent fantasy novel. There's an interesting hook: magic is tied in with wine. Certain grapes provide the basis for certain kinds of magic--one syrahesque grape is used to heal wounds, for example.

This is the first in a trilogy, and the story's just getting going by the end of this volume. I fear that the main characters are heading out on a quest as this part of the story ends, but the background as yet is at least rich enough that I've put the next volume on my list of books to watch out for.

One issue I have is that like so many fantasy characters, the hero of this story has tremendous innate talent for magic. Just once I'd like to have a hero outside of Pratchett who's not a naturally gifted swordsman or mage.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Book: The Love We Share Without Knowing by Chistopher Barzak

Nebula Nominees 5 of 6. An intertwined set of story fragments set in Japan, this book has only the subtlest hint of fantasy, or speculativeness, or whatever the quality is that makes a book eligible for the Nebulas. Assuming, that is, that there's not a whole level of fantasy or ghostiness or magical realism I missed.

It's exceedingly well written, but not particularly speculative.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Art: Wafaa Bilal

I saw this guy speak last night at the Art Institute. Amazing.

He's Iraqi, and his brother was killed by an American missile. One day, he saw on TV an interview with an American technician who controls drones (and their triggers) from a computer in Colorado. When asked if she had any doubts, she said no, she trusts her orders.

His response was to make some pretty impressive, but also very funny, art.

Shoot an Iraqi, for example, hooked up a paintball gun to the internet. Visitors could shoot at Bilal. He stayed in the space for a month, occasionally becoming pretty unglued. One offshoot of that was the Virtual Human Shield group, who organized to try to keep the gun pointed away from him.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

#4 of 6 in my project of reading the Nebula nominees.

VanderMeer creates a world where humans are dominated by a race of mushroomesque creatures called Grey Caps. They are masters of fungus, which sounds odd, but makes for a spore-filled world that'd make David Cronenberg feel a little squicky.

There are previous books set in the same universe. Still not sure I'll read them.

Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction

In the Guardian

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Movie: Company of Wolves

There's a new Little Red Riding Hood movie being made, and on some blog (io9, maybe?), this movie was cited as a good psychological previous version of the story.

Um, no.

A couple good gross-out sequences, but overall I could have happily lived my life without ever having known this film existed. It was made in the 80s, but feels like a refugee from the early seventies.

Book: I.O.U.: why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay by John Lanchester.

The story of what went wrong and caused the financial collapse.

Basically: too much leverage, fucked up incentive structures, poor or non-existent regulation. Not much new here, other than interesting parallels with the UK and other European countries.

I think the author (possibly to insulate himself from charges of being anti-capitalist) misses two important issues. He cheerleads for consumer capitalism without giving more than lip service to inequality. He also doesn;t have much in terms of a solution, other than bank nationalization. He gives a few reasons why that's unlikely, but misses the main one: that the banksters have too much political influence to let that happen.

He does make one important point, though. When there was a "socialist" world and a capitalist one, the former was forced to rein in the worst aspects of capitalism, so as not to lose what he calls "the beauty contest". I think this is true, and it's a point that does not get made often enough.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Book: The Devil's Alphabet by Darryl Gregory

A mysterious disease transforms the residents of a southern town into three different kinds of strange people: Alphas, 8 feet tall and brutally strong; Betas, seal-like and self-reproducing; and Charlies, short, huge, and strong.

Great setup, not really a stunning story.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

As I was halfway through this, they announced this year's Nebula Awards. The Windup Girl is nominated, along with the previous book I read, Boneshaker. Since this makes 3 of the 6 Best Novel nominations I've read (including China Mieville's The City & The City, which I read last year), I immediately went to the SF Public Library's site and reserved the other 3. I'll be adding those to the pile as soon as they come in.

The Windup Girl is another post peak oil novel. It's not just the end of cheap energy that's changed the world, though, it's also excessive genetic engineering of crops and the rapid mutation of deadly diseases. The book is set in a Thailand under siege by the Calorie Companies (as they call agribusiness), desperately attempting to shore up barriers high enough to keep sterile genetically engineered hybrids from swamping native varietals. In Bangkok's case, the barriers are literal: sea walls hold back a risen ocean.

In place of electrics or gas, the main method of energy storage is a method of mechanical storage, called "kink springs". They need to be wound, but apparently are capable of very efficient storage of the energy put into them. The title character is a product of extensive prenatal engineering--effectively an artificial woman, bred to obey, among other things. To distinguish her kind from the naturally-born, her makers have given them a herky-jerky clockworkesque motion. All clockwork, though, when wound too tight, snaps.

Of the three nominees I've read so far, this is the one that I'd be inclined to honor. It's certainly the one that has the most resonance on the current times, and is a tremendous first novel.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Book: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

The aesthetic appeal of steampunk is hard to deny: the shiny brass, the distressed leather, the visible gears; it's all pretty sexy stuff.

The literary style, though, has much less to recommend it. By setting their stories in a colonial era, many steampunk authors end up avoiding any real interrogation of contemporary societal relations. It's easy, frankly, to condemn the Satanic mills that dominate the parts of steampunk not consisting of waiting for the dirigible in some foreign land. It's harder to take on the question of civil rights in an increasingly corporatized society.

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is not the most egregious example of steampunk I've read. It's set not in a colonial land, but in Seattle, during an extended US civil war. A mad scientist lets loose a poisonous, zombigenic gas that quickly renders the central part of town uninhabitable except by the desperate and the undead. The town throws up a wall around the afflicted district, and abandons it to the gas.

Fifteen years later, the scientist's son sneaks into the walled off area to prove his grandfather a hero. His reluctant mother follows him in to save his life.

A well-drawn world, but basically a zombie story. I'm interested in reading more by Priest, but I won't remember this book for much more than the atmospherics for too long.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book: World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler

An interesting illustration of the Long Descent, if a little more on the Sudden Crash end of the spectrum. With gratuitous religion thrown in, even.

The story itself's a little flat, but definitely avoids the Mad Max Fallacy.

Movie: Jennifer's Body

No better than I should have expected. But Diablo Cody's involvement gave me perhaps too much hope. And so many movies have gotten at least some of the high-school-popularity satire so right. This one did not.

Somewhere, among the slow-motion shots of Megan Fox in her underwear, is the beginnings of an exploration of female agency. Still, it seems tragic to fumble this good a setup: she literally has to devour boys to survive. How can you blunt that?


Monday, February 15, 2010

Movie: Contact

Deals substantially with the conflict of reason and faith.

This was a long movie, which allowed it to play out with a certain deliberation. Although slow, I thought the pacing worked.

Movie: Julie and Julia

Cute. Meryl Streep is great as Julia Child. The Julie sections do drag somewhat, though.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book: Wireless by Charlie Stross

Decent collection of stories. A couple of the longer ones were particularly good.

The attempt to put together a Wooster and Jeeves tribute/parady is sort of successful. In his notes, the author describes Jeeves as "long-suffering". I don't think that's quite right. Jeeves seems to be capable of maneuvering Wooster into pretty much anything he wants. He has more agency in the relationship than "long-suffering" would imply, I think. This limitation shows in the story, I think.

Stross is an impressive writer, and manages humor more effectively than most science fiction authors. This collection is not exclusively humorous, but does have more than its share of it.

Movie: Moon

Good stuff! A science fiction movie with an actual science-fictiony plot.

Is it a new thing that movies take corporate evil for granted? I mean, it's realistic and all, but just assuming it feels new.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book: The Long Descent by John Michael Greer

This is a pretty stunning book. Not perfect, by any means, but still really important.

The basic premise is that we are about to (or already have--the book predicts 2010) hit peak oil, and that really, none of the renewable sources of energy will ever be close to being able to provide enough energy to make up for the loss of cheap oil. The consequences of this will be drastic (and, since we've not prepared for it in any real way) catastrophic changes in our economy and society.

However, just because we're going to run out of cheap oil does not mean we're going to fall instantly into a Mad Max world of muscle cars and mohawks.

Greer's thesis is that the rising price of oil will cause repeated shocks to the economy. He's not talking shocks that cause a 10% drop in the Dow and a 10% rise in bank bailouts. He's talking about the collapse of substantial sectors of the economy that depend on cheap energy--like mail order and importing tchoschkes from China. Each shock will be followed by a period of stabilization, as things adjust to the new energy reality. Eventually, however, the continuing depletion of energy reserves will cause another shock, as the cycle repeats. Eventually, we end up in much-less-populated world, with--if we're lucky--a sort of enlightened 18th century society based primarily on manual labor.

The key here, though, is that extreme visions of the future--either a happily chugging along utopia of sunshine and electric cars and online medical care for everyone, or a dark, brutal world with only the strongest surviving off the roasted legs of their second cousins--are equally unlikely. We're running out of energy, it's true, which makes the sunshine and flowers future unlikely, but history seems to show that when societies fail, they don't collapse all at once, but rather in fits and starts.

Which means, instead of an eternal rise or a sudden fall, the titular long descent. So what do we do about it? Well, on a societal level, Greer suggests we've missed our best chances by abandoning the energy-conscious advances we made in the 70s for SUVs and server farms. We can start now trying to conserve energy, and develop alternate sources, but our best opportunities are behind us. On an individual level, however, Greer suggests developing skills now that will be useful in a localized, post-oil economy. Your Python coding experience, for example, won't be so useful. Your woodcarving, or ceramics, or appliance repair experience, on the other hand, may be.

Greer has taken a fair amount of criticism by folks claiming he's not taking into account climate change, and that he's looking at things all to rosily. It's certainly the case that climate change is barely mentioned, but the near- and medium-term effects of climate change are likely to be swamped by the effects of an economy bereft of cheap power. It's possible that the effects of climate change could be the extra push which means the difference between a Long Descent and a Sleigh Ride to Hell, but it's certainly not self-defeating to neglect to devote a chapter to it.

A more serious problem, I think, is the religious axes Greer has to grind. While he's not really proselytizing (Greer identifies as a druid, and admits that his faith is unlikely to be the spiritual path that the masses follow through the long tough times ahead), the author is insistent that only religion (and religion in an organized, churchy sense) will see people through the Long Descent. Our faith in Progress, he writes, will be shown to be a false faith, and what's left is a faith in God. I think he's missing an important distinction here. I think that he's mistaking faith in Progress in the material sense for a sense of Progress in the sense of treating each other better. Only the most rigid of economic determinists would find a notion of technological progress at the heart of, say, the civil rights movement. Was it religious? Yes, in part. But it was also driven by a secular notion of equality, rooted neither in God or in Progress in the technological sense. In a way, Greer repeats the errors of the dogmatists he decries, by straining to fit a multivalent notion into a small, defined box.

Overall, though, this book is immensely thought-provoking, and if not actually of immediate practical use, certainly helps me conceptualize how to face the coming calamities.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Book: Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Well written! Sort of alternate history/parallel universe set in Soviet Union from 1946-1886.

The book is nominally the memoir of a Russian science fiction writer part of a group of SF writers drafted by Stalin after World War II to come up with a plausible alien invasion scenario to unite humanity (after the inevitable victory over US capitalism, of course) against a common foe.

Things don't go quite as planned, however.

Book: Other Lands by David Anthony Durham

Sequel to Acacia (2 of 3 in the series)

Still not George R. R. Martin, but he's trying. Now even with dragons!

The theme of this volume is immortality. Having kids, we're told (repeatedly) is a way to immortality. And one race that has sacrificed the ability to bear children for personal immortality. They seem to regret it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Book: Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

When this book came out, I faced a bit of a conundrum: a time travel book (which I hate) by Kim Stanley Robinson (one of my favorite authors).

Which was it? Kind of both. Overall, the work's an only-moderately-coherent mess. There are aliens! Time travel! Inquisition!

Basically, the book follows Galileo from his invention of the telescope to his death. From that point on, he is watched over by a guy from the future, and is occasionally grabbed 1500 years ahead to be a pawn in an internecine struggle among people living in Jupiter's Galilean moons at the beginning of the fourth millennium.

This is going to sound more complimentary than I mean it, but in some ways the book reminded me of War and Peace. Not just because it perhaps overstayed its welcome, but also that a major portion of the book (the trips into the future) seemed an excuse to juxtapose Galileo and later scientific thought. Which is not without its interest, but I don't think can carry the book.

One thing I found interesting is that the author subtly set the future bits in the world of the Mars books, with references to the Accelerando and Bao, the physicist from those books.

The historical Galileo segments were actually quite interesting, and I think a more focused historical novel about Galileo might have been a more interesting choice. Particularly because I felt the narrative escapes to the future let the reader off the hook a little, especially when things get bad for Galileo.

Like the areology in the Mars books, there's clearly a fair amount of scientific material here that I missed the first time though this book. Unlike the earlier series, though, I have no interest in going back to try to improve my comprehension of it.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Movie: Inglorious Basterds

I'm kinda stumped. I'm just not sure what I think of this film. It was clearly too long--two and a half hours--but one of the reasons it was so long was the way certain scenes were drawn out to the point of extreme tension and beyond.

It's interesting to me how much I expected the war movie trope of each member of the basterds becoming a (sketchily) developed character. A couple of them were, but mostly, they were cannon fodder (and in a Tarantino movie, that's a pretty important role!), not to mention three of them just sorta disappearing, unless I missed something.

There's a thesis (or two) lurking in the wings about women in Tarantino films. In this one, they all get their comeuppance, along with half the basterds and all the Germans. ans why is it that this crack Jewish commando unit was led by an ostentatiously goyische backwoods Tennessean? Who, of course, triumphs.

The Hans Landa character was well-written and brilliantly acted. Interestingly, several of the main roles were played by actors who'd not had much US exposure.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book: Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein

A convincing argument that the forces of international capital take the opportunity after each disaster (economic, natural, or war) to push an agenda of privatization, free trade, deregulation, and reduced government spending.

But wow, does she give a ton of examples. It actually took me two tries to finish this book (despite having it for 6 weeks the first time), because I tired of reading about yet another country being ravaged by the Chicago School minions.

Still, given that it's the model for what Schwarzenegger's trying to do to California, the books gives an idea of what to expect.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book: Golden Dreams by Kevin Starr

Kevin Starr, California's state historian, is up to the 1950s in his history of the state (unifying title theme: Dreams!). I don't know whether his editors have simply given up or whether he's dispensed with them due to the state budget crisis, but this volume sorely lacks someone with an eye toward honing arguments and reining in sentences. There is also an overwhelming amount of biographical detail in this volume, which covers the period from 1950-1963, from the guy who founded UCSD to the Norris clan of San Francisco authors.

The book covers the rise of suburban LA; the coalescing of San Diego into a major city; the building and formalizing of the higher education Master Plan; the immense water and freeway projects undertaken in the period; and a smattering of cultural and political movements.

Perhaps most interesting (to me, anyway) is his take on the way San Francisco was changing in the period. The time, he writes, represented a shift from what he calls "high provincial"--meaning the city as the de facto capital of a marginal area (the West Coast)--to "baghdad"--San Francisco as a culturally distinct, but no longer dominant metropolis.
The Baghdad metaphor had as its first premise a sense of enchantment, of San Francisco being an alternative to something else, to some other place, to a way of living American life.
Starr examines the way this plays out in a number of areas, from economy to government to media. He's not always convincing, but his account of the way "high provincial" San Francisco was eager to tear down the old victorians and black neighborhoods, which the "baghdaders" fought to save them. I think this is likely an oversimplification, but it does point to the difficulty in assigning the two sides the progressive/conservative labels that might tempt us.

I found the writing pretty hard to get through. Starr tends to fall back on lists, including all the department stores, bars, and lawyers of note in San Francisco, at one point, as well as a long selection of all the novels published by writers living in San Diego in the early 50s. Combined with extended biographical treatments of somewhat marginal figures, the book bogs down badly at points. What might be the biggest difficulty, however, are the length and baroqueness of many sentences. Here's a not-particularly-extreme example:
Until his final years, Lewis, a Tory Bohemian of the prewar San Francisco style, given to bow ties and good tailoring, could be found on a weekly basis in the Cartoon Room of the Bohemian Club, a pre-luncheon Manhattan at the ready, discussing books and writing in a soft and understated but pertinent way with club mates George Stewart and James D. Hart of the English department at UC Berkeley or in the evenings attending meetings of the Roxburghe Society of book collectors or merely browsing of an afternoon at Charlotte Hayes Street--a white-haired figure from another era, almost prenatural in his constant calm and good humor.

The chapters on freeways and water are certainly important, given how much both systems have shaped the state. I didn't find Starr's account of the forces behind their construction particularly convincing, and as far as the water question goes, a book (or TV series!) like Cadillac Desert does a much better job of explaining the history of water in California.

Starr's section on people of color (and yes, they do get one short chapter, and that's it) is mostly cursory. There is some interesting material about the role of Filipinos in the early farmworkers' movement, and a page or two on each ethnic or racial group, but the chapter ends with the "out of nowhere" efforts of Jesse Unruh. To reduce the growing strength of the movement for racial equality to the background of a white legislator's quest to singlehandedly legislate fair housing and employment seem to me to be a disservice to history.

Overall, I'd not recommend this book, particularly, but it's not without its interest, despite its many serious failings.

Movie: In the Loop

Relentlessly cynical, frequently funny.

Interestingly, no sympathetic characters at all. Cracking dialog, though.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie: Darjeeling Limited

I am not a big fan of Wes Anderson, and this movie did nothing to change that.

Three privileged brothers traipse through India, gaping at the scenery, desperate to have spiritual experiences, contending with the wildlife, and screwing the women.

It all went downhill after Naked Natalie Portman, and she wasn't really even in the movie.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Book: Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald

A collection of stories set in the same future India as River of Gods. Although I in general vastly prefer novels over short stories, I actually liked this volume much more than the novel that preceded it.

I think it's because the main story of River of Gods was not that compelling, while the various aspects revealed by the series of stories in Cyberabad Days makes for a really interesting world. And the idea of a soap opera, acted by AIs, whose private lives are also a semi-scripted soap opera, is pretty brilliant.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book: Brasyl by Ian McDonald

The book consists of 3 stories set in Brazil: one in the 1730s, one in the present day, and one 30ish years in the future. There's a whole parallel universe thing that kind of ties them together.

Not McDonald's best book, by any means. I also don't really know enough about Brazil to know how close to caricature the milieu is.

Book: The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones

It's impossible to read this book--published in the waning days of the last Bush administration--without thinking of what was to happen to Van. That he was run out of Washington, the ravening Republican mobs waving torches behind him, seems such an overreaction to his program as put forth in this book.

Green Collar Economy is not a manifesto for revolution. It's only incidentally a manifesto for reform. The book is primarily a call for public investment in green technology and jobs, with--it is hoped--an emphasis on low-income communities. Jones illustrates some of the projects already underway, and details some of the challenges they have faced.

The book points out two areas of crisis: the first is inequality (particularly for people of color), the second is environmental destruction. Conveniently, Jones says, we can solve both these problems by giving people good jobs doing environmentally beneficial stuff! We're not just talking building windmills and installing solar panels, which are the poster jobs for the New Green Economy™, but also less glamorous niches, like weatherproofing housing and waste reclamation.

Most of the thesis of the book--the economy's broken, the environment's being broken, let's fix one with the other--is not exactly a surprise. There have been plenty of calls for programs like Cash for Caulkers and for massive investment in biofuels. One unique facet is the way Jones addresses the environmental movement. First, and least surprisingly, he takes mainstream environmentalism to task for mostly ignoring people of color. He also lays some of the responsibility--fairly or not--on the environmental justice movement for not drawing in the mainstream.

Unfortunately, so far history has shown that not only is Van Jones sacrificable to the rabid maw of the right wing, but the idea of a massive jobs program aimed at anything other than politically-important constituencies is also one that seems a relic of a more hopeful era.

There is still time, however. The messenger may already be body-bagged and carted away, but the need for the programs he cites is still there. Whether anyone with the power to do something pays attention is a whole other matter.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Food: Nombe

The food was spectacular. The service, not so much. We got one dish (the smallest) 10 minutes before the rest of our order. And the portions are not going to be cited as contributors to the epidemic of American obesity.

Still. The black cod was buttery and nutty, the sashimi assortment was more of a collection of tartares of various fish.

The potatoes (the mainstay of any tapasesque dining!) were undistinguished, but their accompaniment of seasoned nori was stunning.


Very good food. Not particular value dining.

Bike to work day

Yesterday, I rode to work for the first time since I broke my collarbone at the end of November. Hooray.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Book: Acacia by David Anthony Durham

Boy does he want to be George R. R. Martin. Not gonna get there from here, however.

Still, entertaining way of killing a few hours.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Book: Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin

This is actually a reread, as I've read most of this book before. Still, Trillin's by far my favorite food writer. His searches for the best ceviche in Equador, the best fish taco in San Diego (it's in Mexico, apparently), the best Chinese restaurant in Paris, and the magic bagel that'll convince his daughter to move back to New York are incredibly entertaining (whether you're interested in the dish in question or not). Trillin finds dignity (and something to write about) in the lowliest of sandwiches.

In his discussion of regional foods and how seriously people take them, Trillin spends just a couple paragraphs on San Francisco burritos. He even closes with the idea that some New York restaurant advertising "San Francisco Burritos" would entice a San Franciscan to consider moving to New York.


Still, read this, or any of Trillin's other food books.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book: Horizons by Mary Rosenblum

Implausible science combined with unlikely politics. The characters make up for it, though, by having incomprehensible motivation.

And why is the main character so often the scion of a country-owning dynasty? It's the equivalent of all the fantasy books where the main character's always the deposed prince or hidden prince or even both.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Movie: The Other Boleyn Girl

If you ever had any sympathy for Ann Boleyn, this movie is here to change that.

Pretty movie with good acting, though.

Book: White Devil by Paul McAuley

Mediocre story set in an interesting post-pandemic Africa. I was not crazy about the story, and I felt that the characters started out well-drawn and went downhill from there. The aftermath of pandemic and biological war, though, is pretty compelling, and almost makes up for the weaker parts.

Book: Something in the Air

Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics by Richard Hoffer

For a book about history--specifically history of an event defined in many people's minds by race--this book gets a lot of the history wrong, and is somewhat obtuse about race. That said, the narrative's fascinating, and it does add a lot of detail to a story I only vaguely knew about.

Still: attributing the events of spring and summer '68 (as Hoffer does) primarily to students (and discussing the ongoing fight for civil rights in the years before only as an afterthought) is a flimsy base on which to hang a thesis.

Although Hoffer's grasp of the historical context in which the events of that fall happened appears patchy, his depiction of the unequal and exploitative treatment of black athletes in college (especially San Jose State) in the years before '68 is pretty compelling. Multiple athletes forced to share scholarships, sleeping in otherwise empty buildings because the school could not find another african american to house them with, even being forced to make do with walnuts from a tree for dinner.

The author makes no attempt to trivialize the eventual protests--with the unequal background many of these guys experienced, it's no surprise they were willing to step up. The disagreements among various athletes about whether to boycott the olympics or whether to protest on the podium are reasonably well-rendered, if not put in a particularly historic context.

Finally, a couple of issues that aren't in themselves particularly bad, but show the author's ignorance (or ignoring) of the times.

Harry Edwards
--who'd been kicked off the track team at San Jose State for protesting the conditions of black athletes to the coach--founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which threatened a boycott of the Olympics. As the profile of the organization rose, and as Edwards's profile rose, he became more and more worried about the FBI tailing him, or even trying to assassinate him. Hoffer relates this as a way of characterizing Edwards as losing his grip on reality. This, despite what we know now as an extensive campaign of surveillance and violence against radicals (and particularly black radicals) at the time. In his conclusion, Hoffer even describes Edwards treating his FBI tail to lunch!

The other serious problem is in Hoffer's discussion of Jim Ryun. Introducing the miler, the author writes,
Better to showcase somewhat more conservative and traditional qualities: hard work, stoicism, modesty. A potential gold medal winner who'd be uplifting and unthreatening. Totally inoffensive, but still, someone who could run fast or jump high.

That would be Jim Ryun, by enormous consensus.
Hoffer goes on to enumerate the reasons Ryun was a media darling. What he doesn't mention (and this comes immediately after his extensive introduction of the black runners of San Jose State and the substandard living conditions they were forced to put up with) is that the most media-friendly of Ryun's qualities--even more than "hard work, stoicism, modesty"--was that was white. To treat this at not worth mentioning, in a book that owes its existence to the role race and the struggle against racism, is a bizarre omission.

Hoffer, as befits a former Sport Illustrated writer, does have a gift for protraying the drama inherent in athletic competitions. His coverage of the Olympics events themselves are pretty compelling.

Overall, despite the book's serious problems, it's a worthwhile description of the events surrounding the 1968 Olympics, as well as the events of the Olympics themselves.