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.