Last Thursday my Twitter feed erupted with people talking about Amazon buying Goodreads. As I read the first few, sporadic tweets, I blinked incredulously. Was I reading that right? I scrolled down and saw that I had missed a tweet from the official Goodreads account making the announcement. I followed some links and landed in the feedback forum’s official announcement topic. Two days and more than 800 posts later, a particularly vocal portion of the Goodreads member base has voiced its concern and disappointment over this turn of events. There has been quite a bit of rage-quitting and table-flipping in the past few days.
I had to admit that, after those first few confused moments, my reaction was similar. Amazon has not exactly had a stellar track record in terms of good corporate citizenship. (To be fair, unlike Google, it has never claimed it wouldn’t be evil.) In particular, Amazon has made no secret of its desire to achieve a monopsony in the book trade. Its acquisition of Goodreads seems like yet another step along that path, a path that I don’t think really benefits consumers. Finally, I share many of the reservations expressed in that topic about how Goodreads might change now that it is under Amazonian control.
Fortunately, that knee-jerk evaluation of the situation didn’t lead to me flipping the table, taking my books, and going home. I’ve taken the time to give the situation some thought (or rather, to formulate several thoughts.)
As I pointed out above, Amazon buying Goodreads makes sense from Amazon’s perspective. It’s a relatively inexpensive buy, all things considered. A lot of members are worried that Amazon will use the information they’ve given to Goodreads to try to market things to them. This is, if not short-sighted, then at least missing the point—Amazon is always going to look for ways to get information from you in order to better target its marketing. The Goodreads acquisition seems more likely to be about control rather than information. Amazon finally decided it didn’t want anyone else potentially snapping it up, so it stepped in.
Additionally, Amazon recognizes that ebooks are finally bringing social, sharing-oriented opportunities to reading. If it can leverage this on the Kindle, it further enhances its grip on a burgeoning sector of publishing. Goodreads is very good at the social side of reading, and I suspect that acquiring the talent and feature set behind that puts Amazon in a better position to expand the reach of Kindle beyond simple e-reading.
The other common feeling was one of disgust and betrayal directed towards Goodreads. Lots of comments complaining about the lack of a response (on a holiday weekend), or that the responses given were full of qualifiers, weasel words, and in general weren’t very reassuring. I can totally understand why people are feeling that way. Unfortunately, the Goodreads acquisition seems to make sense from a Goodreads perspective as well.
The site seems fantastically difficult to monetize. There are ads. I don’t notice them—they aren’t all that obtrusive. It seems like Goodreads gets most of its funding from investors. And as the site has grown, it has been having difficulty keeping up with increased traffic and increased usage—and development of new features, not to mention correcting bugs in old ones, seems extremely slow. So I wonder if Goodreads had much choice when it came to selling. I wonder if the finanical situation was such that selling to Amazon wasn’t just a choice but the choice—that is, this isn’t so much a matter of “selling out” as “selling to survive”. Goodreads, through Amazon, is now in a position to stay around for a very long time. Some members lament that Goodreads didn’t pursue alternative schemes, such as paid memberships. I don’t know. You, in all likelihood, don’t know. We don’t have access to all the information, so we accept that instead of loudly proclaiming that we are somehow more cognizant of Goodreads’ funding options than they are.
After all, this isn’t the first time Amazon has bought a company and kept it intact as a service (IMDB, anyone?). This isn’t like Twitter, Dropbox, or Google acquiring a promising startup for its talent and then shutting down the service. There is no still-beating heart that Amazon can rip from the chest cavity of Goodreads and install in its own Frankenstein’s monster of a system. In that respect, I think we are pretty assured that Goodreads will keep puttering along, in one form or another.
Whether that form remains recognizable (not to mention palatable) for long is another matter. Again, after consideration I’m inclined to be optimistic on this front. I just don’t see any point in Amazon investing much time in meddling with the affairs of Goodreads. Better to give them the resources to build things like Kindle discussion integration than to sit on Goodreads and merrily micromanage every page of the site.
To be sure, Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads is very troubling. It emphasizes how much power Amazon exercises in the bookselling marketplace. I share the concerns that many have expressed about Amazon interacts with readers, with reviewers, even with authors. It would be a shame to see any of those issues migrate to Goodreads. I really do hope Amazon doesn’t end up ruining one of my favourite places on the Web. And I really hope that, somehow, we find a way to combat Amazon’s growing dominance in this sphere of the trades. Otherwise, we may be in for some dark days indeed.
So, I’m sticking around for now. I shall continue to read and post reviews. Until I see evidence that the site is headed towards inexorable decline, I will reserve further judgement and contemplate instead the wider implications of this move. Amazon buying Goodreads doesn’t seem like such a bad thing for Goodreads; I’m not as optimistic about what it means for the book trade or readers in general.
As I’ve done for the past four years, I now present my top 10 best and worst books that I read last year. This was a good year for reading. Although I’m not quite back up to where I want to be, at around 150 books per year, I beat last year’s total by ten books. And once again, I read only four 1-star books—though I gave up on four books, the most I’ve ever abandoned in a single year. I don’t like giving up on books; I like sticking through to the bitter end and then writing a snazzy invective of them. But some of the books I tried to read last year just weren’t working, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to write cogent reviews of them, so I decided to move on to the next one on the list.
Speaking of the list, here are the lists:
You’ll notice you can’t comment on this blog post. For the past year or so, I’ve been receiving an increasingly impressive amount of spam on my blog, which baffles me because I don’t know where my blog posts are being linked that they attract so much attention. It got to the point where spammers were actually consuming enough bandwidth that they used up my limit for last month! Last summer I started working on a total, ground-up rewrite of my blogging platform, but it isn’t close to finished, and I don’t have the time to work on it or even revamp the comment form with stronger spam protection. I’m not too worried, because I received very few comments each month. Those few of you who read my blog can share your thoughts with me on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere (and, of course, I welcome tweets and posts from irregular readers as well).
And now, how about some goals for reading in 2013?
I am making a concerted effort to read the oldest books on my to-read list. I’ve never slavishly followed the order of my list. Newer books that excited me (or found their way into my possession, for whatever reason) could easily jump to the front of the line. Plus, I would tend to add several books from the same author, or with similar settings or themes, at one time to the list, and I wouldn’t want to read them all at once. However, as nice as the library system where I’m living in England is, its selection leaves something to be desired, so I ordered quite a few of the oldest books on my list from various merchants online. I believe I now have all of the books that I added in 2008, so I’m going to get through those first before tackling any other acquisitions.
I also want to make some more time for re-reading. I have quite a few books sitting on my shelf that I’ve read once but need to read again, either because it’s been a long time—and it would be nice to have a review for them—or just because they are so good (e.g., Fall On Your Knees). The problem with having a massive to-read list is that I feel guilty when I take “time off” to read a book I’ve already read. And last summer, thanks to several library trips and some used book shopping, I spent most of August working to read new books before I moved away.
Ideally, I think it would be neat if I could stick to re-reading at least one book a month. However, that might be difficult when most of the books I own are in Canada, so I’m not going to make such a precise goal. I also thought about declaring August, the summer month when I will be home, a month of re-reading, but I don’t want to lock myself into such a rigid prescription. I just want to re-read more books this year than I did last year, and let’s leave it at that for now.
Goodbye, 2012. Here’s to a fantastic year of reading in 2013.
It’s that time of year again. Took me a little longer to do it, but I did it: I chose the 10 best and 10 worst books that I read last year. You can view their respective lists by following the links below:
Part of the reason for the delay was that I finally decided to bite the bullet and attempt to import all of my Goodreads reviews en masse. It actually worked out fairly well, so now constructing book lists is a less troublesome endeavour.
Book lists still don’t have a comment feature yet, so as always, I invite you to comment on my selections on this blog post—oh, and tell me what were some of the best and worst books you read in 2011.
The year is almost over, and unless I finish a book tomorrow, it looks like I will end 2011 with 115 books read. Not too shabby, I suppose. Far cry from my goal, which was to tie with 2009’s best of 156 books. But still pretty good, all things considered. Indeed, from time to time people exclaim their awe at how much I read. I don’t like to draw too much attention to the quantity, which is after all no indicator of quality, because it feels too much like bragging. But today someone on Goodreads asked me how I manage to read so much, and as I was composing my reply, I realized it was getting too lengthy. Lengthy enough for a blog post, in fact.
It’s quite simple. I have a time machine, you see, and that allows me to go back in time and spend more time reading throughout the day….
Well, I wish that weren’t so much science fiction!
Last year, which was a very good year for me, I averaged 2.6 days per book; this year I have been slightly busier, so I took 3.1 days per book. Considering that most people, i.e., people who do not bother joining a social networking site about books, are probably lucky if they read 10 or 15 books in a year, I suppose I do read quite a bit. However, I’m far from abnormal—some of my friends here are up to the 200s when it comes to books, and I suspect they must be speed-readers.
I am nothing of the sort. I probably do skim quite a bit, by which I mean that my reading comprehension has developed to a point where I don’t have to focus my eyes on every single word in order to get the gist of a passage. The way that the human brain and the human eyes interact is really quite amazing and not very much like a camera. I suspect (because I Am Not a Neurologist) that my practice reading means that my brain can predict what words will be before they have fully registered. Indeed, when I encounter an unfamiliar word I do tend to “stumble” and slow down (while I pull out my dictionary!). I know I’m not a speed reader because I still need to focus carefully when I read technical, academic, or legal documents where rigorous attention to the word choice is more important.
My “secret” is a patent-pending formula discovered through years of careful, painstaking research, including an ill-fated expedition to a Tibetan monastery long thought lost to the ravages of time and war. And, for the low payment of $99.95, or three easy payments of $39.95, you can have it too….
I don’t have much of a secret. When people ask me how I manage to read so much, the answer is always the same: I make reading a priority. I allocate a great deal of my free time to reading, more so than almost anything else. And this has been true for a long time. I read a lot when I was a kid, and I’ve continued this habit my entire life. That doesn’t mean you can’t start reading voraciously now—but like any skill, reading becomes easier with experience.
Also, keeping track of your reading helps too. Goodreads has been really good for me in that regard; I’m a lot more aware of which books I read in a year and which ones I want to read next. I’m not saying you need to review every book like I do; you don’t even have to join a site like Goodreads (though I certainly recommend it!). But even just keeping a list of which books you’ve read each year, and looking it over every few months so you can see your progress, might help. You could even develop a goal. You might choose to try to read a certain number of books in a year. One of my friends is working her way through the BBC’s list of top 100 novels as voted by readers.
Of course, I also have to admit that I probably program my life in such a way that I have more free time to read. I am lucky enough to be financially stable right now (I still live with my dad). I don’t find my schoolwork particularly challenging, and with the possible exception of this year, it has never felt time-consuming either. Most people seem to engage in a dazzling array of extracurricular activities, including sports, music, and volunteering. I don’t do many of those things, and while I feel that has sheltered me in many respects, I also recognize that my vast experience reading has opened my eyes to new worlds. So while I don’t have the same experiences as my peers, I wouldn’t necessarily say mine have been of inferior quality. But it’s definitely the case that I make time to read, because for me, reading is a priority.
This year, my final year of my undergrad, has given me a taste of what I might suspect once I get a full-time job. In the five weeks of my practicum I only read three books. Terrifying! And one of my instructors mentioned that most of the teachers he knows only have time to read a few books while they are on break during the summer. I certainly hope my own personal drive to read shields me from such misfortune!
The person on Goodreads whose question prompted this post also mentioned that he reads audiobooks and probably couldn’t listen fast enough to match my pace, even at double speed. When people ruminate on how they can read more, I do tend to suggest audiobooks as a part of the solution. Audiobooks are awesome: you can listen to them “on the go” in the car, while you’re exercising, or while you’re cleaning or cooking. They are excellent for people who just don’t have the time to sit with a book for an hour (or even half an hour) a day. Even so, I tend not to listen to many myself. Even with the ability to alter the playback speed, audiobooks are a little too much like a movie or television show: you go at their pace, not the other way around. Books, among all our entertainment devices, have a marvellous and singular capability to take as long as you desire. You might choose to devour a good book in an afternoon, or draw out the pleasure for a few days. This is one of my favourite things about reading, and it’s the one aspect that audiobooks, for all their advantages, do not replicate.
Some people spend so much time gaming they turn it into a lifestyle, even a career. Others become master speedcubers, or Olympic-class athletes. We all have our talents and our interests. Reading is mine. And at the rate my to-read list has been growing in these years since I joined Goodreads, I wish I could read even faster! No matter how many books you read in a year, however, the fact that you are reading is pretty amazing. Keep it up.
Yesterday was the deadline for voting in the Hugo Awards. I submitted my final ballot on Friday. I managed to finish all of the Hugo-nominated works in the novel, novella, novelette, and short story categories. I also voted in the best related work and best dramatic presentation categories, and I voted for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Here’s an overview of my picks for this year’s Hugos.
I wrote lengthy reviews on Goodreads for all of the novel nominees, so rather than a recap blog post that just links to those reviews, I will list them here. The ballot allows us to rank each nominee by preference, so that if our first choice doesn’t receive a majority of the votes, it gets stricken from the ballot and our second choice becomes the first, and so on. So I’ve listed the nominees in order of preference:
- The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald. This did not blow me away, yet it somehow stuck with me and persuaded me to give it five stars. I hope it wins.
- Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. My first Vorkosigan novel, I enjoyed it but don’t really think it’s Hugo Award material. Still, it is the next best book on the ballot.
- Feed, by Mira Grant. As with Cryoburn, I can’t quite see this as a Hugo winner, but it’s still a good story.
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdom, by N.K. Jemisin.
- Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis.
And here are my choices for the other works:
- Best Novella
- Troika, by Alastair Reynolds
- Best Novelette
- “The Emperor of Mars”, by Allen M. Steele
- Best Short Story
- “For Want of a Nail”, by Mary Robinette Kowal
- Best Related Work
- Chicks Dig Time Lords, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
- Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
- Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
- This was difficult, because three of the five nominees were Doctor Who episodes and all very deserving. On the other hand, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” was also nominated, and it would be totally awesome to see a YouTube video win a Hugo Award. (And it is deserving of such an award too.) In the end, I voted for the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor”, because its last ten minutes were perhaps the best part of that entire season of Doctor Who.
- Best Fan Artist
- How could I not vote for Randall Monroe?
- John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
- Saladin Ahmed
Reading the Hugo nominees meant I had no shortage of good reading material for July, even though it means I didn’t come close to meeting my goal of exhausting my to-read shelf by the end of the month! Also, this year I had a smartphone to use as an ereader, so I will soon post an evaluation of how it served me compared to print books and to reading ebooks on my computer.
Having dispatched the Hugo-nominated works for the short story and the novelette categories, I’m now getting into the big guns: novellas and novels. I love long-form fiction, and so I look forward to reading all of these longer works. Here are my thoughts on the novellas. I wrote this post over the course of several weeks as I worked through the novellas while reading other things, so my reviews begin verbosely and diminish as my memory has faded. On the bright side, I reviewed two of these on Goodreads, so you can enjoy some detailed analysis over there.
“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window”, by Rachel Swirsky
In this wonderfully original story, Rachel Swirsky introduces us to Naeva, a practitioner of “woman’s magic” in the Land of Flowered Hills. She has been a companion of Queen Rayneh since childhood, but Rayneh betrays her on some bad advice from her councillors and imprisons Naeva’s spirit in a crystal, preventing Naeva from ever finding rest. She must endure centuries and then millennia of a half-aware stasis during which she is intermittently yanked back into the world of the living, summoned by a parade of practitioners.
Naeva is a difficult protagonist to like. She is argumentative, confrontational, vindictive, and all too quick to jump to conclusions. The Land of Flowered Hills is a matriarchal society. There are women, men, and broods—females who are deemed unworthy of citizenship and exist only to bear the children of men and women. When a woman wants to have a child, a practitioner of woman’s magic mixes the woman’s “seedling spirits” with the fertilizer of a man of her choosing and implants them into the womb of a brood. This description and the terminology made me think of a colony of insects.
Throughout the centuries of her torment, Naeva never surrenders her prejudices about the propriety of men using what she considers “woman’s magic”. This becomes a crucial sticking point at the climax of the story, when Naeva has otherwise won unconditional acceptance in a society that summons and retains restless spirits like herself so that they can share their knowledge freely. I think I speak for most people when I say I would like a more open-minded protagonist, someone with whom I can empathize. However, I admire the way Swirsky portrays Naeva, right up to the end of the story.
“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers” is a paradigm case of what it means to be a character-driven story. Naeva is furious over her state, and she wants nothing more than to be released from bondage and allowed to move on to whatever happens after death. She confronts her impotence in various ways. At first, when she is at the beck and call of Rayneh’s traitorous daughter, Naeva is mostly cooperative—albeit deprecating toward Tryce’s decisions and abilities as a leader. Later, as different practitioners of magic from different civilizations begin summoning her, Naeva resorts to resisting by destroying whatever charms or wards are holding her spirit in the vessel the summoners use. Tired of interacting with anyone, of being summoned only to be questioned or used, Naeva disengages as much as she can. Yet even that does not bring her the peace she wants.
Ultimately, however, it’s clear that Naeva’s relationship with Rayneh underlies all of her interactions in this story. Rayneh’s betrayal cuts Naeva deep not just for the obvious reason but because it destroys the illusion of reciprocity Naeva had constructed: she realizes now what she knew even as a child, that she would also give and give to Rayneh, even after her death, and Rayneh would just take and never give back. This is not Rayneh’s fault per se but a consequence of her role as the queen: it is Naeva’s duty to serve; only her closeness to Rayneh as they grew up would make her expect anything different.
So when the story opens, Naeva is immediately plunged into a very dark place. I’d go as far as to say that “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers” is, in general, dark in tone, but the end is oddly uplifting. Swirsky follows Naeva’s undead journey to its final, logical end, allowing Naeva to witness the end of the universe. There’s an ongoing debate throughout the story about the status of magic; Naeva believes it is a living thing, something organic that one must cajole, persuade, plead to work. The ending and resolution to Naeva’s story fits well with this perspective, for it conveys exactly why I think magic holds our attention as readers: as long as there is magic in the world, there is always hope for change and transformation.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon”, by Elizabeth Hand
This ties with “The Jaguar House” for my least-favourite Hugo nomination so far this year. “The Maiden Flight” just isn’t science fictiony enough. That feels like a terrible thing to say, because I hate running around playing The Great and Terrible Arbiter of What Is and Isn’t Science Fiction. Yet this story, despite its slightly incredible plot details and unresolved questions, just does not evoke the typical feelings I have when I read science fiction. It fell flat for me. Aside from a single, unexplained phenomenon later in the story, there is nothing about this book that seems to distinguish it from works that are seldom called science fiction. So it baffles me that it’s up for a Hugo.
Genre snobbery aside, the story itself is good. The narrator has a friend who wants to recreate the first and only flight of a fantastic flying machine called the Bellerophon. The flight itself is apocryphal, having only been recorded on a strip of film that was damaged years ago. He’s doing this for his mentor/lover, who devoted her life to apocryphal histories of human flight. She’s dying of cancer, and he wants to give her this one final gift. So they recreate the flight, and it’s a labour of love. This story reminds me of a Hugo nominee from last year, “Shambling Towards Hiroshima”, because both sort of exist outside the genre. Yet “Shambling” at least had a decent science-fiction premise underlying the rest of the meta-fictional story.
“The Sultan of the Clouds”, by Geoffrey A. Landis
Excellent story about a technician infatuated with his friend, a well-known geologist. She gets invited to Venus by a fabulously wealthy member of the family that owns Venus in all but name, and he tags along, only to uncover a sinister plot wrapped inside a marriage proposal. Landis combines intrigue with some cool social commentary on the nature of marriage and cultural relativity: on Venus, everyone marries twice. At 21 Venusian years (about 12 in Earth years), one marries “up” to an older person, who then acts as one’s mentor and teacher. Later in life, one marries “down” to a younger person and acts as mentor and teacher to them. Even as he describes these social practices and the amazing floating cities of Venus, Landis never loses sight of the plot. It’s very satisfying.
Troika, by Alastair Reynolds
Alas, not available online, Troika is my pick for the Hugo Award for Best Novella. Read my review on Goodreads to learn why. This is available as a special limited edition from Subterranean Press, or you can find it in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Godlike Machines. Strahan himself is up for a Hugo for Best Editor, so I’ll be reading Godlike Machines later this month.
I continue my reading of this year’s Hugo nominees with the novelettes. As with the short stories, all of these are available online, and I encourage you to read them.
“Eight Miles”, by Sean McMullen
Although I wouldn’t call “Eight Miles” steampunk, it is definitely a cousin of that genre—perhaps we can call it “Victorian chic.” McMullen embraces the sense of wonder and pure flights of fancy that recall the science fiction of the early 20th century—indeed, even going as far back as H.G. Wells and The Time Machine. This is a story that might have been written in that era, for it relies on ideas that run counter to our contemporary knowledge of the solar system—and that’s fine.
I admit to being prejudiced in favour of flashy weapons, super-sleek spaceships, aliens, and robots. However, “Eight Miles” is still an appealing work because it’s a fascinating story. The main character gets drawn into a story that has already begun and must make some tough decisions that rapidly take him outside of his comfort zone. Much like Wells’ time traveller, McMullen’s protagonist, Parkes, is an inventor, and this plays an important role, both in what he chooses to do and how he does it. But even this problem might not have a solution. Lord Cedric Gainsley hires Parkes, an innovative balloonist, to take him eight miles into the sky (hence the title). It is only at this altitude that Gainsley’s “discovery”, a hirsute woman he has named Alice, regains her full faculties. And soon Parkes discovers he is not the first balloonist Gainsley has hired….
“Eight Miles” is a nice little piece of short science fiction. Go read it.
“The Emperor of Mars”, by Allen M. Steele
I never went through a Martian phase as a child. The Red Planet holds no special fixation for me. I think it’s awesome we are sending probes and rovers to it, and I understand its role in science fiction. For those who don’t, however, perhaps Steele and “The Emperor of Mars” can help.
Told from the perspective of the base commander, this novelette follows the lapse of Jeff Halbert into insanity. When some people go insane, they think they are Napoleon. Jeff thinks he is the eponymous “Emperor of Mars”. Distraught over the death of his fiancée and his parents, Jeff withdraws into the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom series. Counselled by the base psychiatrist to humour Jeff, who doesn’t seem to be a danger to anyone, the base commander allows Jeff’s fantasy of being the Emperor of Mars to continue. The story explores how Jeff’s insanity affects the morale of the base in general, as well as giving us a look at how our previous explorations of the planet and our literature of Mars might be regarded one day by the people who live and work on the Red Planet.
“The Emperor of Mars” is touching and moving, and I love Steele’s voice in it.
“The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, by Aliette de Bodard
I read this as part of the 2011 Hugo Voters’ Packet. Until I looked it up on Goodreads, I did not remember that I had previously heard of Aliette de Bodard from her Big Idea piece on John Scalzi’s blog. Now that I’ve made the connection, I am slightly more favourably disposed to this novelette, but only just.
There is very little wrong with “The Jaguar House in Shadow”, but it still failed to impress me, at least compared to its other contenders in the novelette category. It’s not very accessible. Thanks to a friend’s review, I’m aware now that this is set in a larger universe that de Bodard has created, an alternative Earth in which China’s first contact with the Aztecs allowed them to survive the subsequent European “discovery” of the New World. I don’t have a problem when an author decides to make such connections implicit. Unfortunately, there’s very little about “The Jaguar House in Shadow” that tempted me to love it.
De Bodard tells the story in a non-linear order, jumping back and forth between time periods as we learn about why the main character is pursuing a vendetta against her former commander of the Jaguar House guards. There are implications and undercurrents of corruption, of a mad leader who must be deposed, of the possibilities of the Jaguar House being reborn as first among the houses—or event he last house left standing. And some of the action as Onalli stalks into the house and finds Tecipiani and Xochitl is really well done.
This novelette is well written, and I think I can see how it’s brilliant in its own way, but it just didn’t work for me. I look forward to reading some more of de Bodard’s work, and I hope I like it more.
“Plus or Minus”, by Jim Kelly
Mariska Volochkova is a clone of a famous woman, an astronaut in some sense, and Mariska wants to get out from under her mother’s shadow. So she enlists on an “asteroid bucket”, a tub that brings ice-rich asteroids back from the belt. But she doesn’t fit in there, and like any teenager, she is still searching desperately for her identity.
So far, a great deal of the science fiction entries in this year’s Hugo Awards focus on the practical, plausible side of science fiction (what some might call hard science fiction. Clones might or might not fall into this area, depending on how they are done, but “Plus or Minus” hinges on the realities of space travel: in space, you are alone. When Mariska’s ship is damaged thanks to the incompetence of one of her crewmates, the crew calculates how long they can survive on their current oxygen—plus or minus—until they can rendezvous with a rescue ship. Here, Mariska’s unique heritage becomes important: like her mother, she has the ability to put herself in a metabolic stasis that will, among other things, dramatically lower her consumption of oxygen. With this ability, Mariska hopes they can survive longer. What follows is a tale of a girl forced to mature very quickly and get over herself in the middle of disaster.
“That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”, by Eric James Stone
I like this story, probably more than I should, because it reminds me of Sundiver, by David Brin. Both invoke the idea that there might be life inside the Sun in electromagnetic or plasma form. It’s an attractive idea, because it’s not usually the type of alien life one sees in science fiction stories. (There are some others that raise the idea, of course, but Sundiver is what first came to mind.)
Stone’s protagonist is the head of the Mormon chapter on the station in place near the Sun. Some of the lifeforms in the Sun—they are called swales—have converted to Mormonism, interestingly enough, and one of them consults Harry after another swale forcibly engaged in swale sex with it. Harry sees this as rape, of course, but in swale society it’s different. So we have the interesting clash of cultures: some swales have embraced Mormonism, but how can Harry see that Mormon morals are applied to a society where morals are so different from anything present in human societies? To compound matters further, Harry approaches one of the oldest swales, Leviathan, to plead his case—only he discovers that Leviathan considers herself a god to the swales and is not pleased that he has been poaching from her congregation.
Weird and Wonderful, But No Clear Winner
I quite appreciate the diversity of this year’s novelette nominees. There really isn’t a straightforward and simple science-fiction story among them; each is crazy and unusual and wonderful in its own way. So I’m having a difficult time choosing among them. For now, I think it is a tie between “Eight Miles” and “The Emperor of Mars”. I love the writing and the characterization in the former, whereas the latter communicates a love for an era of science fiction that has eluded me thus far, as well as a fascination with the Red Planet and space exploration in general.
As I mentioned last month, I am voting in the Hugos and therefore reading as many of the Hugo-nominated works as I can before the July 31 deadline. So far I have read all of the short stories and novelettes and am going to embark upon the novellas this weekend. Here are my thoughts on the Hugo-nominated short stories.
“Amaryllis”, by Carrie Vaughn
I’m ambivalent about “Amaryllis,” because there’s a nice concept here but that the actual story is too simple. as far as the tone goes, it is perfect. I got teary-eyed at the end as well, despite my inner critic going, “The resolution was too simple! There’s not enough conflict! I want another cup of tea!” (That is how my inner critic stresses syllables, apparently.)
Vaughn very deftly avoids trying to do too much with her short story, which is a problem I often have when I try to write them myself. It’s a very simple concept, and she doesn’t attempt to go any further and tell us much more about the world than the main character’s immediate surroundings. I like that, because it keeps the mood intimate.
The simplicity of the setting conceals a very deep story though. Again, Vaughn has the walk the line between telegraphing too much (and thereby making her story both non-subtle and overbearing) and too little (thereby making it inscrutable) about how the committee-based pregnancy panels work and the effects this has on society. I like the early tension that exists between Nina and the narrator, how the latter points out that Nina could probably find it easier to get pregnant if she joins a more auspicious house. Historically, our choice of mates have often been constrained by social status, but, thanks to our technological limitations, it has been difficult to prevent people from getting pregnant. Now the situation is reversed: Nina has a beau all lined up, clearly based on attraction and not any sort of status, but she needs the appropriate social status to be allowed to have a child.
I don’t think the short story as it is could be easily expanded into a novel, but I agree the basic premise is intriguing. As with any suggestion that we restrict the growth of a population by awarding permission for pregnancy, the world Vaughn depicts in “Amaryllis” raises the spectre of eugenics and aristocratic privilege.
My only problem with the story was that I felt the conflict—or, more specifically, its resolution—was very simple. I realize, as a short story, that’s usually a bonus. And it came out of left field: suddenly Nina suggests an audit. An audit?! I didn’t know that was a possibility. No one foreshadowed that! But Vaughn handwaves this away because the narrator was just too intimidated to request one before. It’s not as elegant as I would like to see, especially from a story that is elegant in every other way.
“For Want of a Nail”, by Mary Robinette Kowal
This is my favourite of all the nominations, so unless I change my mind, I will probably vote for it. What can I say? I’m a sucker for stories about the deaths of artificial intelligences.
In “For Want of a Nail,” Rava is the “wrangler” for her family’s AI, Cordelia. One of several families aboard a generation ship, Rava’s family uses Cordelia as a record of all the important events: births, deaths, marriages, diary entries, etc. So when Rava accidentally damages Cordelia and impairs her ability to serve in this capacity, she’s desperate to conceal this from the rest of her family as she tries to repair Cordelia. She especially doesn’t want her Uncle Georgo, Cordelia’s retired wrangler, to learn of her screw-up. But eventually she resigns herself to appealing to Georgo to help, only to find out that he has dementia and has programmed Cordelia to cover this fact, lest he be found out and sent to be “recycled”.
This is a very compelling story, and Kowal manages to pack a lot of ideas in here without losing the reader. The line between treating AIs as human yet having the ability to alter them in a way (as yet) unavailable to us when it comes to actual human beings
Rava winced at the title, at the way it stripped their relationship to human and machine. “I have to do a rollback.”
It all comes down to a question of identity. These are fascinating questions about the philosophy of mind, and as our understanding of neuroscience increases, so too will our ability to manipulate our neurology at a fundamental level. At that point, we might well start thinking about doing “rollbacks” of human minds!
So I love stories that depict characters with cognitive faculties that make them, for all intents and purposes, as sentient as humans—yet we can stick our hands in their guts and reprogram them at will. That creates so many interesting moral dilemmas. Here, in particular, I love Kowal’s juxtaposition of Cordelia’s malfunction with Georgo’s dementia, and how Fajra perceives their lack of usefulness to society as equivalent&38212;and deserving of the same fate, recycling.
“Ponies”, by Kij Johnson
Kij Johnson writes some weird stuff.
Her story “Spar” was nominated for a Hugo last year (and won the 2010 Nebula award for short story), and I absolutely hated it. I just didn’t enjoy it at all, neither its cryptic style nor any subtext I managed to dredge from it.
“Ponies” is much better (and much less cryptic) but I‘m still not sure how I feel about it. Now I can’t get “My Little Pony” out of my head, particularly this parody trailer of a live-action “My Little Pony” movie. This story is kind of like “what if ‘my little ponies’ were real and you had to mutilate them to win social acceptance?” And that is so messed up yet compelling (whereas “Spar” was just messed up).
“The Things”, by Peter Watts
I have not watched The Thing but still managed to enjoy this story, which actually makes it more impressive to me than if I had seen the movie. Mind you, I had enough general knowledge about the plot of The Thing that I understood the allusions within the first page or so. Yet if we existed in an alternative universe where the movie had never been made but this story was still published, I still feel it would be accessible.
It’s simply a story told from the perspective of a shapeshifting consciousness that crashes in Antarctica and gets discovered by explorers. The consciousness is like a virus that infects life throughout the universe, assimilating it into its own distributed awareness. It has difficulty doing this with life on Earth, and that, coupled with its need to survive in such a weakened state, scares it and forces it to make bad decisions and try to adapt.
I enjoyed the exposure to this odd perspective, mostly because I like when authors challenge the idea that if there is life out there, it is probably going to be very similar to what we see on Earth. While it might be depressing to think that our evolution has produced a unique form of intelligence that, at least in Watts’ depiction, is doomed to be at odds with the dominant form of intelligence throughout the universe, it’s still a fascinating thought experiment.
That being said, I am disappointed by parts of the story, and in particular the ending. The last line being out of place: “I will have to rape it into them.” Although I appreciate the tone that Watts was trying to convey—the alien is just going to soldier on and “save” us for our own good—his execution was rather abrupt and, yes, lazy.
I enjoyed the alien’s initial bewilderment over how intelligence is situated in humans, but I feel the need to nitpick and ask why it didn’t figure this out faster. I mean, humans are not the only species on this planet with brains; the alien inhabited and controlled a dog and should have noticed the similarities. I can offer some excuses: because dogs aren’t sentient, perhaps the differences between a distributed and a centralized intelligence were less obvious; or maybe the injured, reduced nature of the alien was impairing its deductive reasoning. Nevertheless, this part bugs me a little.
I did like how he called our brains “thinking cancers.” It’s an apt way to remind us that our evolution did not direct us toward centralized intelligence and that intelligence is not the end goal of the process but merely another adaptation for survival.
There are some interesting commonalities among the short stories this year. Both “For Want of a Nail” and “Amaryllis” have a ruling authority controlling people’s lives, especially when it comes to conception, on the grounds of austerity and preserving resources. All of the short stories have to do, thematically, with “fitting in” and finding acceptance, in one way or another. One might argue this is true of most fiction, but I think it’s particularly obvious here: the narrator of “Amaryllis” is discriminated against because she’s different; Barbara in “Ponies” just wants to be one of the TheOtherGirls (creepy); the Thing has to conceal itself and hide among other humans; and Georgo compromises Cordelia’s self-determination in order to fit in even after he develops dementia.
As I said above, “For Want of a Nail” is my choice for the award. All of the stories were good, but this is the only one that has really grabbed me and stuck with me. I tend not to read a lot of short stories, just because I really like the detail and scope of novel-length works, but “For Want of a Nail” was a pleasure to read and just the right length.
On Tuesday I launched reading portal for my site. Basically, this is a one-stop place to learn about what I am reading, what I was reading (and what I thought about it), the best and worst books I‘ve read each year, etc. Although I’ve got both my current reading and recent reading on the homepage, the reading portal is much more detailed. You can actually read the fifteen most recent reviews I‘ve written, and there are links to my detailed yearly reading stats.
The coolest feature of the reading section is the one that has been finished and live for a while now: book lists. I can create a list of books, with their associated reviews, based on any criterion I desire. This was motivated by my annual best/worst books of the year list, which in previous years I posted directly to my blog. I am also slowly going through my Goodreads account and creating lists corresponding to series I have read or am reading. This is a nice way to see, in general, what kind of books I like to read (and a nice way for me to track what series I’ve read).
I‘ve been using Symphony CMS for almost a year now, and I can’t say enough good things about it. Once you wrap your head around using XSLT for the templating, Symphony reveals itself as the insane powerhouse it is. Development is fast, flexible, and most importantly, fun. I plan to do a lot more with Symphony CMS, both for this site and in general; I‘m hoping to contribute to the community itself. To that end, I’ve started learning how to use Git for version control. So far it’s pretty cool.
I have plenty of subjects for blog posts in mind, but I’ve been remiss in actually writing them. Work, reading, baseball, and of course website updates all seem to get in the way! I want to write about the Hugo-nominated works I‘ve read, as well as how much I’m enjoying Ubuntu 11.04. So expect to see those soon.
Sunday was mostly an odds-and-ends day. I cleaned my room, organized things, and finished some books. Although the threat of rain hovered constantly in the air, I even managed to do some reading outside. So I had a pretty good weekend.
I managed to finish both Persuasion and the Iliad. My to-read shelf was finally empty, which meant I could restock it with books from the rather oppressive overflow stack. I have forty more books on the shelf now, and the overflow now fits comfortably inside that blue milk crate! My goal is to empty the shelf again by the end of July—this is ambitious, I‘m aware, and made even more so by the fact that I also have to get through the Hugo Voters Packet by the end of July.
I’m voting in the Hugo Awards again this year. I first voted last year, when John Scalzi alerted his readers to the fact that the Worldcon organizers distribute a packet containing electronic copies of most of the nominated works. This year, the attending membership at Renovation is only $50. That is a small price to pay for access to all these wonderful works, not to mention the privilege of voting in the Hugos themselves. I’ll blog more about the awards once I have read more of the nominees.
My weekend was rather relaxing, and certainly not as active as my brother‘s. He spent almost the entire weekend outside in our driveway, doing body work on his truck. Brad’s dedication and work ethic never fail to amaze me. I’ll come home from my seven hours of math research, which includes high speed Internet and tea, collapse into a chair, and declare myself exhausted. Brad, on the other hand, leaves earlier than I do, comes home later from a physically-demanding job, and goes straight to work on his truck. He’s always working on his truck—and when he’s not, he’s helping his friends with their trucks, or going mudding. None of these activities particularly appeal to me, but I am glad I have someone around who knows how to fix my car when it breaks. Especially when he’s the one who broke it!
And now I’ll talk about my research for two paragraphs, which means some fairly intense math jargon. You have been warned!
This is the sixth week of my summer research. So far, it has been very similar to last year, which doesn’t surprise me. I have mostly been trying new approaches to computing the spreading number by looking at the symmetry of the graph. We can perform rotations and reflections on sets of vertices using the symmetric group, and Dr. Van Tuyl and I hoped this would lead to better algorithms for finding the spreading number (which, you may recall, is the cardinality of the maximum independent set on the graphs we are studying). Alas, although we have made many valiant attempts, a feasible solution remains beyond our grasp. We have several interesting algorithms I’ve been testing, but they either use too much memory or do not produce tight enough lower bounds.
This week I think I am going to finish up my look at the spreading number, regroup, and redirect my efforts. I will turn again to the covering number; last year I had a fair amount of success with a greedy algorithm to find an upper bound (specifically, a minimal clique covering). Despite our lack of success in computing new bounds for the spreading number, the time I’ve spent so far this summer has furnished me with some new tricks that I hope to put to good use in improving this upper bound algorithm. Also, I would really like to understand why the covering number in four variables corresponds to this integer sequence.
And so my summer continues: lots of reading, plenty of math. As we now ease into June and hopefully receive more sun, I want to get more writing and more programming (mostly for this site) done as well. I’ll try to keep the blog posts coming.
For the third consecutive year I have prepared two top 10 lists of books. One has the best books I read last year, and the other has the worst books.
Recently I completed a new feature for my site, book lists. They do exactly what they sound like: lists of books I‘ve read, with reviews I’ve written on Goodreads. This is all part of a larger work-in-progress, which is a portal that offers an overview of my reading.
Rather than reproduce the list here as I have done in the past, I’ll just link to the two lists. Since book lists do not accept comments, however, please post your comments here!
And you may want to check out the lists from previous years.
I intend to analyze my reading statistics in detail like I did for 2009. Those should be available soon. For now, let me just say that I read 137 books in 2010—fewer than last year’s total, 156 books. My goal for 2011 is 166—I hope to regain my lost ground and better it by ten! Wish me luck.
Hello, my name is Ben, and I am a genre snob. Or at least I was. I‘m trying to quit, but as fellow genre snobs can attest, it is not easy to surrender culturally-inculcated notions of genre and embrace a more nuanced approach. Still, I need to try. For the children!
This week I read Amanda Scott’s Tempted by a Warrior, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. Had I paid more attention when entering the giveaway, I would have noticed that the book is historical romance, not merely historical fiction, and passed. I didn’t notice, however, and I won the book. As I prepared to write my review, I discussed the book with a friend—who, as it happens, reviews paranormal, romance, and even paranormal romance1 for one of those review sites to whom publishers send books with the eager trepidation marketing people perfect after too many years in college.
I opened the conversation by quoting one of the sex scenes in the book:
Me: There is a list of words that automatically ruin sex scenes for me, and “tempestuous” is one of them.
Her: I can’t imagine why.
Me: Aside from that, this book isn’t that bad.
Her: “Turgid” tops my version of that list.
Me: Yes. And “tumescent.” Lots of T words, eh? “Throbbing” and “pulsating” don’t help either. Sometimes I can tolerate “throbbing”, but if any part of your body is “pulsating,” you should seek medical attention.
To be fair, the sex scenes aren’t actually that bad. There’s two of them, and aside from triggering my list with “tempestuous,” they are tasteful.
Oh, and this was before my friend realized which book I was reading:
Her: Are you reading that romance?
Me: Yes… . I‘m trying to parse everything now and make sure my reactions aren’t biased by the fact that this is romance. The rational part of me knows that there is nothing wrong with “romance” in general, just as there is nothing wrong with “science fiction” in general … but the irrational part of me insists this is not the case.
Me: Maybe it’s just fluff fiction I dislike, regardless of genre.
Sadly, this is wishful thinking, and I know it. Romance is the genre, for me, that belies my claim to be genre-neutral. I am sensitive to genre snobbery, because as a lover of science fiction, I dislike it when anyone shuns science fiction based on a claim that it is not “real literature.” But the moment somebody pulls out a romance, I recoil, and my prejudice rears its ugly head. I‘m worse than a genre snob: I’m a genre bigot!
And then my friend blew the discussion wide open by dropping the elephant in the room:2
Her: Remember, you have to review it as a romance.
Boom, suddenly my mind bifurcates. One Ben (we’ll call him Genre Ben) agrees with this proposition. The other Ben (we’ll call him Agnostic Ben) rejects it. A single sentence summarizes my internal conflict over how I write reviews and how I perceive books in general. It doesn’t help that I read a book about art criticism last week, so the subject is fresh in my mind.
Looking through my reviews, Genre Ben has left his fingerprints everywhere. Of thrillers, Genre Ben writes, “I don’t pretend to hold thrillers to the same standards as great works of art” (from this review). Even worse, when reviewing another romance, Genre Ben comes right out and says, “It’s unfair for me to expect this book to rise above its genre.” Right there, an implication that romance is somehow inferior. Oh, I am ashamed of you, Genre Ben.
The problems with genre are myriad. How does one define a genre? Who decides which genre—or genres, since a book can be more than one—a book inhabits: the author, the publisher, bookstores, the reader? I agree that as a naive labelling tool, genre is useful. For the purposes of criticism, however, Genre Ben makes me uncomfortable.
Agnostic Ben snickers, feeling victory is close at hand. Not so, for he does not hold the high ground. I happen to agree with Ursula K. Le Guin, who laments that she cannot review The Year of the Flood as science fiction. Le Guin respects Margaret Atwood’s desire not to be
… relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers, and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.
Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.
Le Guin’s point resonates with me, with both Genre Ben and Agnostic Ben. After all, genre influences our expectations. As Genre Ben observes in that earlier romance review, we expect westerns to have horses, outlaws, and guns; we expect science fiction to be filled with difference, whether it’s spaceships or robots. If the author insists her novel is not science fiction, then fine: it’s not science fiction, so all of this unrealistic language must be interpreted without the benefit of the science-fictional lens.
So at this point in my conversation with my friend, Agnostic Ben decides to move the marker:
Me: I only disagree in part. I agree that our conception of genre influences how we perceive a book, and that in turn affects how we write a review. Where I disagree is the premise that genre somehow alters the merits a book must have in order to judge its quality.
In other words, Agnostic Ben’s platform is that we should not condemn a book because it claims membership in a particular genre. My friend had none of it, however:
Her: It’s our job as reviewers to appraise whether or not the book meets the expectations of the genre … and to have a firm enough grasp of the intricacies and indiosyncrasies of each genre and subgenre to judge them as such.
Well said! I did not have an adequate response for this, and so I unfairly segued into an epistemological attack on the concept of genre, and a confession of my own insecurities on this entire issue.
In particular, I examined the fact that books often belong to more than one genre: the book that started this whole debate, Tempted by a Warrior, is historical romance. But is it really two genres—historical fiction and romance? Or is historical romance a subgenre of romance, much as, say, cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction? Or maybe the book is romance, and its setting is historical.
Sometimes when the debate over what constitutes science fiction comes up, I opine that science fiction itself is merely a setting rather than a genre proper. It makes sense, after a fashion. There are many different types of science-fiction stories: action-adventure, comedy, tragedy, even romance—the good old, classic genres, right? Science-fiction books belong to many different genres, sharing only the backgroup of a science-fictional setting in common.
I‘m not entirely comfortable with this argument. It does not seem to address the fundamental point both Le Guin and my friend are trying to make, the role of genre in a reader’s (or reviewer‘s) expectations and criticism. All I’ve done is relabel “genre” to “setting.”
So perhaps we cannot entirely rid ourselves of genre—it is here to stay, in one form or another. Then the question of defining genres becomes paramount. From the beginning, I have to dismiss any notion that genres can be disjoint. As “historical romance” makes clear, a disjoint definition will require so many subgenres as to make one’s head spin. Let’s go easy on ourselves and allow genres to overlap.
I will not attempt a general algorithm for categorizing a story by genre. I am an amateur at this game, and no doubt more learned people than I have tried. However, let me explore what passes for romance these days, since it is the central genre under discussion here.
Romance as a genre has undergone drift over the centuries. The Wikipedia entry for Romance (genre) refers to the traditional definition of epic or heroic narratives, tales of dazzling deeds. In the 19th century, Wikipedia explains, “the connotations of ‘romance’ moved from the fantastic and eerie … to novels centred on the episodic development of a courtship that ends in marriage.” Thus is born the the romance novel, which places its “primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an ‘emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.’” Wikipedia also notes that “the genre has attracted significant derision, skepticism, and criticism.”3
That definition comes from the Romance Writers of America, incidentally. The second clause, regarding an optimistic ending, surprised me in its specificity. It makes sense, however, because this clause differentiates romance from every other genre. People fall in love all the time—it is practically a disease—and characters in novels are no exception. The element of romance occurs in almost every story; after all, love is one of the most powerful sources of conflict. Some of my favourite books are love stories, wrapped in hilarious British absurdity. So a book just about romantic love between two people, even one whose primary focus is love, may not be a romance. Unless it has a happy ending. (I am a sucker for tragic endings, so maybe this is why romance and I part ways.)
My goal in this little exploration, in case you were wondering, was to find out why romance is its own genre when love is universal. The requirement of a happy ending is a good reason, but I‘m not sure if it is strong enough to make romance a genre in its own right. Agnostic Ben is shaking his head as I write this, but I want to deny any agenda here. I’m just investigating my own tastes, trying to discover why I avoid romance and whether I can rationalize this prejudice or banish it.
Frankly, I think more men should write romance novel reviews! Because they tend to cut directly to the problems and not gloss over what works and what doesn’t work. Whereas when women (like me) write snarky reviews, other women (hard-core romance lovers) get all bent out of shape—for whatever reason—maybe because they don’t want their novels have any mirror on reality or to be feasible/workable in real life.
While I don’t want to digress into a gender stereotype discussion, the notion that some reviewers (regardless of gender) “cut directly to the problems” instead of giving romance a free pass is an intriguing one. Because I think that was the visceral reaction Agnostic Ben had when my friend told me I had to review Tempted by a Warrior “as a romance.” Although she did not mean it that way, my first instinct was to interpret this admonishment as an instruction to be more lenient because, as Genre Ben would phrase it, “the book is just romance.”
No book is just anything though. Genre Ben and my friend might be right in that we cannot completely decouple genre from criticism—nor would be desirable, I suppose. By the same token, not all criticism stems from genre, and Agnostic Ben wants to give precedence to these genre-independent perspectives when deciding a book’s merits. Alas, it falls to poor, ordinary Ben, a mere mortal, to reconcile these positions and synthesize appropriate reviews. In the past I have often succumbed to genre snobbery; doubtlessly I will do so again, despite my vigilance. Hopefully, however, I will often succeed in going beyond—but not excluding—genre in my criticism.
Thanks to my addictive use of Goodreads, I have written a review for every book I have read since August, 2008—about 300 reviews in total. Many of them suck—more from being rushed without revision—but there are a few gems of which I am ridiculously proud. I like to take my endeavour to review the books I read seriously, and that requires serious thoughts about how I write reviews.
But I don’t want to take it, or myself, too seriously. So here’s a lolcat.
While I fall into both of the above categories, I only paid the Hugos passing notice. Certainly, if a book has won the Hugo Award, or even been nominated, then I might give it more consideration before I begin reading it. But not every winner is a winner, if you know what I mean.
This year’s different, though. This year, I’m going to pay more attention, because I’m voting in the Hugo Awards.
Earlier this week, John Scalzi posted on his blog about the 2010 Hugo Voters Packet being available. This is an electronic copy of many of the works nominated for Hugo awards, which is distributed to people who have registered for AussieCon4 (and are thus eligible to vote in the awards).
A full ticket to AussieCon4 is $310 Australian dollars—and I have no intention of attending a convention. But all you need for voting rights is a supporting membership, which is only $70 Australian. I didn’t even need to use my mathematically-inclined brain to figure this one out: for $70, I got DRM-free copies of Hugo-nominated works. This includes all of the nominations for Best Novel. Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story. Hard copies of the novels alone would probably set me back more than that (although I already own three of them), and tracking down the short stories, if I were so inclined, would cost even more. Plus, I have a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, which i probably wouldn’t otherwise have read.
Oh, and now I can vote in the Hugos themselves. Which is rather the whole point of this exercise, but I‘m still salivating over all of the new reading material I’ve acquired. My Calibre library has suddenly increased in size, as these works join some public domain books from Project Gutenberg and freebies from Suvudu.
When it comes to this year’s nominees for Best Novel, I’m ahead of the game. As I mentioned, I already own Boneshaker, The City & The City, and Julian Comstock in hard copy. Julian Comstock was one of my top ten books of 2009. I’ve also read and gushed about Wake, so that leaves only two more novels, both of which look superb. I‘m just as interested in seeing which book I choose to support as I am in seeing which one wins.
So anyway, if you want to vote in this year’s Hugo Awards (and nominate works for next year’s Awards) and have $70, head over to the Aussiecon4 website and register. Even if you don’t care to vote, I urge you to check out any of this year’s nominees.
Another year is behind us, and the Internet is inundated with all sorts of “best of” and “worst of” lists, including Rex Sorgatz’s List of Lists. Last year, I posted my inaugural annual list of best and worst books I read. I enjoyed pontificating so much about my favourite (and least favourite) books of 2008 that I thought I’d do it all over again for 2009!
Before we begin, let me explain. I use a site called Goodreads to track what I read. I joined Goodreads last year in May 2008, so I only had seven months’ worth of books—64, to be exact. Choosing twenty books as the best and worst of the “year” amounted to thirty per cent of the “year’s” total.
This year it’s different. I read 156 books, which gives me a wider selection and means I have to be a little more discriminating in choosing my top 10. In fact, winnowing the choice down to ten took more work than I thought it would. Sure, I could create a “top 11” or “top 12” list—why enslave myself to society’s arbitrary fascination with the number 10? But that’s not the point. The point is to limit the number of books I can showcase so I have to stop and consider exactly which books I consider worthy of this honour (or dishonour).
Top 10 Best Books I Read in 2009
10. Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia E. Butler
I read this book for my speculative fiction course in the fall term. Full disclosure: this is actually an omnibus edition of Butler’s Xenogenesis series, consisting of Dawn, Imago, and Adulthood Rites. However, since it’s only printed as the omnibus these days, I feel it’s only right to include it as a single book. From my review:
This is one of the scariest books I have read in a long time. Good science fiction, good posthuman fiction, challenges the idea of what it means to be human. Octavia E. Butler goes beyond that, way beyond, challenging not just what human means but how open-minded I am to such challenges. This book blew my mind.
This is the first book by Robert Charles Wilson that I have read. While Julian Comstock didn’t “blow me away” like some of the books on this year’s list, it’s a solid, thought-provoking story. From my review:
As a didactic work of fiction, however, Julian Comstock embodies the sublime. It neither preaches nor lectures. There are precious few speeches. Instead, Wilson shows us a possible future, and as the consequences of his what-if game unfold, we see his themes in both the dialogue and the action: it takes strength to stand up against injustice, especially when it’s inevitable that you won’t live to see your victory achieved; the only comfort is the knowledge that this too shall pass.
Last year, I ranked Le Guin’s Lavinia as my tenth-worst book of 2008, and I felt really bad. Le Guin’s a wonderful writer, and The Dispossessed reaffirmed that opinion. This was a latecomer to the race, as I read it only a few days before Christmas, but as my review demonstrates, it definitely deserves a place on this list.
Le Guin manages to make both nations seem viable, but it’s clear that neither are ideal places to live. There is no utopia, Le Guin proclaims. This is the common theme of utopian literature, of course, but The Dispossessed stands out because it’s discrediting two visions of utopia. And each has different flaws, different vulnerabilities. On Anarres, society the pressure on the individual to conform with social norms replaces laws. The danger of this, however, is that it stifles the very foundation of Anarresti society: “we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine.” On Urras, we see classical forms of government with classical flaws: the individual becomes subordinate to the State and the Economy, slave to the twin whips of Authority and Profit. Despite these obvious flaws, however, it’s clear that these are visions of utopia. And that’s where it really gets interesting.
The copyright wars are raging all around us. Corporations face off against teenagers. Words like “pirates” and “criminals” abound, whether or not such labels are deserved. Lessig’s book is a well-reasoned look at the current state of copyright and what we can do to put copyright back on track. From my review:
Lessig’s stance reassures me that there is nothing wrong with the concept of copyright itself—indeed, so-called “free” licenses, like Creative Commons and “copyleft” are also copyright, just of a different breed—the core dilemma we face is that copyright has become distorted during the twentieth century by increasingly restrictive regulation. Lessig argues that we need new legislation to remove our copyright quagmire and update our laws to reflect current cultural values
6. Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
Doctorow is one of those chimeras who manages to sound like he’s writing popular fiction (perhaps even “young adult” fiction, although I’m hesitant to label Little Brother in such a restrictive way) even though his book is clearly polemical. By no means a perfect book, Little Brother managed to make me passionate enough that my review turned into a polemic as well!
This isn’t Luddite fear-mongering either; Doctorow’s addressing real concerns about the intrusive nature of new-old technologies like RFID. These aren’t issues that affect only the military or upper class white-collar workers or secret agents; these issues affect everyone, rich or poor, desk or factory, government or private sector. And they affect us here, now, today—not tomorrow. Doctorow is clearly on one side of this issue, but even if you eventual come to stand on the opposite side, at least you’ll be choosing a side. If you remain apathetic, then you will have no voice in this silent revolution. And if you have no voice, how can you really call yourself free?
Also, you can download Little Brother for free in a variety of formats, no DRM at all, courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license.
5. Fool, by Christopher Moore
I have many friends who swear by Christopher Moore, so this year I gave him a try, starting with Fool. Anyone who likes irreverent Shakesperean comedy will love this. From my review:
Take Fool with a grain of salt and suspend your disbelief and you’ll be rewarded with a funny and entertaining story. I laughed out loud at several parts of the book, something I very rarely do, and was ready to grant the book five stars when I was less than halfway through (contingent on the book remaining awesome, which it did). Not only is Fool fun and easy to read, but it makes Shakespeare accessible to people who might otherwise never find time for the Bard—I‘m looking at you, vapid Twilight-enslaved teenage populace. Fool isn’t a replacement for King Lear, and maybe I‘m just being too idealistic here, but I hope it’ll stir up more interest in Shakespeare, who could be every bit as bawdy as Christopher Moore.
4. Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco
Eco is the only author to make the top 10 list two years running now. While I found The Name of the Rose interesting and profound, Foucault’s Pendulum was a sublime work of literature. From my review:
At its core, Foucault’s Pendulum is a fable about conspiracies. It is a cautionary tale that demonstrates what happens when people begin to believe in conspiracy theories; lending credence lends life, which can have unfortunate consequences for everyone involved. The main characters begin as sceptics, working for a publishing house that’s allied with a vanity press, who begin constructing a fictitious Plan by connecting seemingly-disparate historical facts. When organizations and individuals begin showing up seeming to be acting in accordance with this Plan, however, our protagonists realize that if you make up a Plan, even a false one, someone might try to execute it.
3. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
I don’t care what you think about Victorian novelists or how much you love or hate Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters. I don’t care if you named your kid after Charles Dickens or personally made a pilgrimage to see the heart of Thomas Hardy. Forget everything you know about rural Victorian England. Middlemarch is, hands down, the best Victorian novel ever.
As I put it:
Eliot masterfully balances several related but distinct plots that take place in the fictitious town of Middlemarch. Although the story takes place during the Great Reform Bill of 1832, politics plays a secondary role. The story is largely character-driven and focuses on rural English life, which sounds boring until you realize that it’s utterly fascinating. It’s like the Victorian version of reality television.
Or as Siobhan Adcock puts it:
Best. Goddamned. Book. Ever.
Seriously, this shit’s bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S. 750 pages in, and you‘re still being surprised. It’s 800 pages long and EVERY SINGLE PAGE ADVANCES THE PLOT. You cannot believe it until you read it.
This is only the second book I’ve read by Salman Rushdie, yet I feel so familiar with his work already. The brilliance of Midnight’s Children is so subtle at the beginning but quickly crescendoes. From my review:
In fact, the actual experience of reading Midnight’s Children reminded me why I love prose so much, why reading is eminently superior to other forms of entertainment (I’m looking at you, television!). In the hands of an author like Salman Rushdie, words can transcend language, and prose becomes beautiful. While other authors can describe a scene in such a way that I feel present, that I can smell the smells and feel the textures, Rushdie wields a different sort of literary magic: his words evoke emotions, their euphony resonating with the soul and reminding us of the beauty of life itself. I savoured the words of Midnight’s Children…
1. The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
Seldom do I so thoroughly enjoy a book as I did The Gone-Away World. It’s just fun. From my review:
The genius of The Gone-Away World sneaks up on you in a loud and bombastic way. Nick Harkaway’s writing reminds me two Douglases who are masters of the absurd and apocalyptic: Douglas Coupland and Douglas Adams. Sardonic and observant, Harkaway tosses off scene after scene of unrelenting zany fun. Yet when the smoke clears and the score is tallied, The Gone-Away World is ultimately, like JPod or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, about what it means to be human.…
The book goes on to explore how some people use cognitive dissonance to keep their humanity intact in dehumanizing lines of work, whether they are appallingly destructive or just mindlessly tedious. The Gone-Away World isn’t merely about retaining one’s humanity in the face of external threats like Stuff; it’s a cautionary tale about unintentionally sacrificing one’s humanity in the name of doing good.
Shortlist for the Best
Some books that made the shortlist, in alphabetical order by author:
- Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
- Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
- Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer
Top 10 Worst Books I Read in 2009
10. The King’s Grace, by Anne Easter Smith
To be fair, this book isn’t bad so much as incredibly bland, which is why it’s all the way up at number 10 on the list. From my review:
Wrestling with my mixed feeling toward this book, I‘ve ultimately decided that the problem is the writing more than the story itself. The story should be interesting: rather than the battles and machinations per se of final chapter to the Wars of the Roses, we get to see the relationships among the sisters of York as Tudor secures a definitive Lancastrian victory, only to have to put down an upstart impostor to the Yorkish crown. Every so often I’d see a glimpse of depth and drama—such as Grace’s observations about Elizabeth Woodville’s treatment of her daughters vis-à-vis Woodville’s treatment of Grace. Then the book would shy away and sink back into turgid mediocrity.
9. Drood, by Dan Simmons
This is a controversial pick, since I know that Dan Simmons has a large fanbase that will no doubt give Drood much acclaim. As much as I enjoyed Hyperion, Drood did less than nothing for me:
… I shouldn’t be upset about supernatural elements in a book that is supposed to be supernatural, right? Except that the entire “Drood” mystery is conflated by the prospect of it all being an opium- or mesmerism-induced fantasy. Perhaps I just dislike it when the supernatural elements aren’t blatantly real but merely just suggested.
By refusing to choose between a serious satire of hedge-fund-wife society and a silly romantic summer read, Kargman undermines her own story, transforming it from something with great potential into just another mediocre romantic comedy. Pandering to everyone just won’t work. Good literature has to take risks, even if they don’t pay off, and even if they alienate one audience in favour of another. The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund has a couple of moments of shining glory tarnished by the absence of any element of risk.
From my review:
I eked very little enjoyment from The Forgery of Venus. As romantic and attractive as the art forgery scene may seem, Gruber manages to quash that feeling in his drug-induced insanity plot. Had I any sympathy for the protagonist after the first few chapters (which I didn’t), in which he whines about how unfortunate his life has been, it would have slowly bled out of me while I watched Chaz firmly refuse to take any responsibility for his own life.
6. Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin
Imagine a book that tells you about what happens in the afterlife. Now imagine that book, only with flat characters and an afterlife in which nothing happens and there’s no such thing as religious resolution. Then you have the unsatisfying atmosphere that is Elsewhere:
Elsewhere ducks the question of souls and religion in general, giving us a throwaway line that “God’s there in the same way He, She, or It was before to you. Nothing has changed.”…
Everyone lives in a nice house, has a nice job, and is nice to people. Yet if Elsewhere itself is an allegory for growing up and leaving behind adolescence, what does that say about life in general? This is jarringly inconsistent with adolescence, adulthood, or any other period of life. The moral of Elsewhere seems to be that a life without conflict can be rewarding, and I don’t see how that can be the case.
5. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin
No, that isn’t a typo. Gabrielle Zevin receives the dubious distinction of making my list of top 10 worst books of 2009 twice.2 And it wasn’t a contest deciding which one was worse: Elsewhere is unfulfilling, but the themes of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac are downright disturbingly stereotypical. From my review:
If anything, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac reminds me of why I‘m glad my years as a teenager are coming to an end: way too much drama. And not the funny-yet-vicious sort of drama I enjoyed watching in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls; no, this is the pointless-yet-ubiquitous drama created as a byproduct of our own struggle to discover who we are. Unfortunately, Zevin seems to focus on this byproduct while ignoring the end goal—the whole self-discovery thing.…
It’s a zero-sum book, because its main character never really changes.
Much like The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, this is a book I knew would be bad beforehand. I read it precisely because I wanted to write a snarky review. So while its appearance on this list may be slightly unfair, its ranking must ultimately reflect how bad it is—and as much as I disliked some of the books on this list, few of them are worse than Sex and the High Command. From my review:
As a story, however, Sex and the High Command severely lacks anything resembling a sensible plot or realistic character development. Again, my context is a little vague here. What resources I could turn up seem to indicate that this isn’t satire, but it belongs to a school of sci-fi that’s tongue-in-cheek in its approach, bordering on absurdism but not quite philosophically adept enough to earn that label. It reads like a Saturday Night Live sketch that’s 212 pages long and has also ingested steroids.
3. The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks
The signal-to-noise ratio of The Algebraist is terribly low. There are so many names, species, and places irrelevant to the plot that I had trouble following the plot (although maybe this wasn’t a bad thing).…
It’s as if The Algebraist is a simmering pot of water that, about 100 pages in, comes to a boil, and then all of the water boils away. The threat just evaporates by the end of the book. Long before that happens, however, my patient evaporated.
From my review:
I have to admit I was skimming by the time I reached the halfway point of History Play. Its stultifying writing made me want to put it down, but the rational part of me wanted to see how it ended. It probably wasn’t worth it, in retrospect … as it is History Play is lifeless, limp prose.
1. The Expected One, by Kathleen McGowan
Let’s put it this way. While reading through my reviews to decide which book would earn the title of “worst read in 2009,” The Expected One clinched it when, in the first paragraph, I compare it to last year’s worst book, The Art Thief. As with last year’s title holder, the worst book I read this year is one to avoid at all costs:
What begins as innocuous conspiracy-orientated historical fiction ends up becoming a delusional and boring dissertation on the “truth” behind Mary Magdalene … this novel is semi-autobiographical…. It gets worse.…
The Expected One is empty; the story, its inspiration aside, is poorly written. A good book should appeal to the reader even if he or she disagrees with its themes. The reader should be entertained by the quality of its writing and its story. When a book becomes limited to an audience of approval, there’s something wrong.
Shortlist for the Worst
Some books that made the shortlist, in alphabetical order by author:
- Watermind, by M.M. Buckner
- Counter-Clock World, by Philip K. Dick
- Haze, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
- The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, by Sue Townsend
- Beyond the Gap, by Harry Turtledove
Want to Learn More?
But wait, that’s not all. I’ve also done a statistical analysis of my reading in 2009 using OpenOffice.org Calc and data gleaned from Goodreads. It’s amazing what consistent tracking of my reading habits and a couple of hours playing around with a spreadsheet reveals about what I read and how I write my reviews.
Tonight Stargate Universe premiered, and I wanted to share my thoughts on it. However, I feel guilty blogging about a television show when I haven’t blogged about arguably more important matters, such as life.
With a month behind me, I feel good about the school year so far. I only have four courses this year: Introductory Analysis, Partial Differential Equations (PDEs), Introduction to Mathematical Probability, and Speculative Fiction. Three math courses and an English course. All of my math courses are interesting, and I was excited to take the English course the moment I saw it offered. I’ll discuss it first, since the rest of the post will be about math.
My Speculative Fiction course is covering only science fiction this section—which is fine. Although I love literature in general and would gladly have taken something like Victorian Literature if this course hadn’t been offered, the chance to read and discuss science fiction for credit is not something I was going to overlook! We’re reading The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, The Left Hand of Darkness, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Neuromancer, Dawn, and Singularity Sky. We also have to watch Blade Runner (a film based on Do Androids Dream).
Of my math courses, Introductory Analysis is my favourite because it comprises my favourite aspect of math: proofs. Specifically, I love algebraic proofs—the more abstract the better. I love math but don’t like numbers so much. PDEs are fascinating and challenging as well; the course is very much oriented toward application, however, whereas I‘m more interested in theory. Unfortunately, my ardour doesn’t quite extend to probability, but I think I’ll survive—so far it hasn’t tripped me up too much.
My involvement in math at the university extends far beyond courses! Last term I marked assignments for a first-year calculus course; this fall I‘m marking a second-year linear algebra course. Moreover, I’m tutoring in the new Lakehead Math Assistance Centre (LUMAC for short). Both of these jobs are paid positions, which is a nice income in addition to my gallery job while also providing me with relevant experience for my future career.
Having spent a few sessions tutoring, I can already say that I enjoy it. We’ll see if it stays that way once the flood of people arrives the week before midterms! For now, however, it’s fulfilling. Plus, it gives me a nice review of first-year courses, like basic calculus, that contain skills I’ll always be needing but don’t always practise as I should.
So I have a very math-filled term, it appears. I like to use the phrase “inundated by math—and I love it.”
More Reasons to Love the Guild
Who Said Math Can’t Be Fun?
Well you were wrong, whoever you were. Mathematicians from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa modelled different responses to a zombie apocalypse and concluded that the best way to survive a short-term zombie apocalypse is to impulsively eradicate all zombies. Ladies and gentlemen, load your engines and start your shotguns.
I’m an Uncle
In July, my sister, Tara, gave birth to a very little boy named Clark! So I’ve got a nephew, which makes me an uncle, and that is sublime. I got to meet Clark today for the first time, which called for the typical point-and-shoot photos that wind up on Flickr somehow.1 If I‘m short on words about Clark, it’s only because I don’t really know him yet—he doesn’t know himself yet, since he’s only a month old and still new to the world. I will report back in four or five years!
- [ 1 ] I blame the gnomes, if only because they haven’t unionized yet like the orcs did.
Funny story. Last night I got an email from my friend Maria, who recommended to me her friend’s LibriVox audio recordings for my summer audiobook odyssey. Since it’s as good a place as any, I decided to begin with John Milton’s Areopagitica.
For those of you unfamiliar with Areopagitica,1 Milton wrote it back in 1644. In many ways, the world was different back in 1644: global warming wasn’t as much of an issue back then, the roads were slightly better, and Clint Eastwood had just starred in his first movie. Yet in many ways, the world was very much the same: young kids listened to pop music that drove their parents crazy, celebrities got into tabloid scandals, and short-sighted people wanted to censor books.
Areopagitica is a polemic against the Licensing Order of 1643, which would essentially establish government censorship over all published works. Milton argues passionately and eloquently that such an order is foolish, that censorship is ineffectual and indeed harmful to a free society. He cites the examples of the Greek and Roman societies2 and goes on to extol reading and learning in general.
Now, Milton’s idea of “freedom of speech” was slightly different from what we interpret it to mean today. To Milton, freedom of speech means the freedom to pursue the study of knowledge of the sake of worshipping God. And he wasn’t against burning books after they were decided to be harmful; he just didn’t want books to be censored before being published and judged by a wide audience. Most of Milton’s argument, however, remains valid today: censorship is a bad idea. Books are good.
So why do some people insist on ruining the fun for the rest of us?
See, today I learned that yet another group of people want to burn books. So it’s serendipitous that I’m listening to what we might call an ur-tract—in the English language, at least—against censorship. Milton’s arguments remind me, a bibliophile and staunch opponent of censorship, why we shouldn’t burn our books.
To clarify, if you haven’t read the article, this Christian group wants the right to burn library books. I don’t care if people burn books they‘ve purchased or published themselves. It’s their property, and they have a right to do with it as they please. However, burning library books would be, in my perfect world, a capital crime. Burning a book is a terrible thing:
For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.3
And see, Milton’s a Christian. He’s all about God in this matter. So when I say this is a “Christian group”, I mean it’s a group of people who say they’re Christian (according to the newspaper article anyway). They don’t seem to be acting in a very Christian matter. But whatever; it’s a free country, right?
Well, only as long as you don’t publish “explicit” books, apparently. This group wants to remove a book called Baby Be-Bop because it discusses homosexuality and has some fairly explicit content. I haven’t read the book, so I won’t judge.
The group argues it could be mentally and emotionally damaging to children. I’m not a parent, but maybe I will be one day. And it seems to me that if you consider your child too young to protect himself or herself from “dangerous” material, then you shouldn’t let your child wander around alone in a public space. It’s that simple. I’m not against parents deciding what their children read—I would hope that parents educate their children widely and openly, but ultimately it’s their business. There comes a time, however, when you have to let your child grow up.
For that reason, I find this quotation from the Guardian article particularly laughable and dangerous:
Their suit says that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” and that it contains derogatory language that could “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”
It’s one thing to argue that material could be harmful to children. I personally take such claims with scepticism, but I at least understand that they originate from a desire to keep children safe and healthy. All right. But now you want to censor books because they might harm adults? All my life, I grew up believing that to be an adult is to have the ability to do whatever one wants (within reason), including reading whatever I want. The idea that I need a moral “Big Brother” is … well, it’s offensive. It implies I’m not mentally fit to judge what may harm my emotional wellbeing. If that’s the sort of society we want, then it wouldn’t really be free, would it?
Interestingly enough, I came across another free-speech-related article in the book I’ve just finished, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. This from Daniel Gilbert’s “dangerous idea” entitled “The Idea That Ideas Can Be Dangerous”:
We live in a world in which people are censured, demoted, imprisoned, beheaded, simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That’s the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it’s time to make a run for the fence.
Last week, Iran held national elections in which the incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supposedly won the vote by a landslide. Amid accusations of rigging the election, Ahmadinejad’s government has continued to block access to the Internet, to mobile phones, and harshly beat and interrogate rioting protesters. That is what happens when freedom of speech becomes less important than creating a rosy world.
I may not like what you have to say—I may think that you’re an idiot for saying it—but because we live in a free society, because I want to live in a free society, I’ll let you say it. You can shout it from the rooftops. You can shout it because you’re free.
Now that freedom is under attack, not by external forces of terrorists or British pop groups or European soccer stars, but by internal forces who seek to censor, to slash, to burn. They want to suppress what doesn’t fit their picture of a rosy world, to judge you mentally incapable of conducting your life, and rip knowledge—regardless of its quality—from this Earth, driving us back into the dark age of 1644. This is an insidious threat, because it can’t be fought with guns or bombs or tactical nukes.4 To stop this threat, you need to do something far more dangerous: you have to stand up and say “No.”
So stand up. Read the books you want to read, and fight for the right to stock libraries full of any and every book, whether it’s Twilight or Shakespeare, and seek knowledge in all its forms. We live in an age of astounding literacy, with technologies poised to deliver books to our fingertips no matter where we are or what we’re doing. We can have our rosy world and read it in too.
I had originally intended to eschew the “best of 2008” and “worst of 2008” trend that always appears at the end of the year.1 However, one of the best websites I discovered in 2008 was Goodreads. Since joining in May, I can’t recommend it enough. A self-proclaimed bibliophile, much of my leisure time goes toward reading. Thanks to a terrible memory, I have trouble recalling the particulars of books I’ve read; my reviews usually emerge as hazy generalizations that make me feel like I didn’t read the book at all. Continuing my trend of using technology to replace my memory, Goodreads helps me organize my books; I can keep track not only of books I‘ve read, but I also add books I want to read. It’s pretty much awesome.
So I thought, since I can actually remember what books I read this year, why not post a top 10 list of the best and worst books I read in 2008? Technically, this is “best and worst since May 2008”, since that’s when I started using Goodreads. Even so, I had trouble paring down each list to only ten books—I can only imagine it’ll be more difficult to do next year when I have twelve months’ worth of books from which to choose.
Top 10 Best Books I Read in 2008
From my review:
This is a story of curdled bitterness. One of the main characters tears his family in two and creates a gaping wound that doesn’t heal until several decades later. A tale of “twins separated at birth”, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter explores how the secret complications of that separation affect all the members of the two families that raise these twins….
9. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
My review contains spoilers, so read it at your own risk:
It took me a long time to finish this book (perhaps the longest time it’s ever taken me to read a book). Umberto Eco sets out not just to provide another pulp fiction fodder for the masses, but to construct a richly-textured story—or rather, history—with elements of mystery, rhetoric, and religion. As a result of the book’s depth, not to mention its lengthy passages of medieval rhetoric, I started this in October and am only now finishing it; I read other books on the side to keep myself occupied. But the length of time it takes me to read a book is irrelevant, as long as I enjoy it. And that I did….
Judging from the other reviews, this is one of those books where you either love it or hate it, for the exact same reasons. Where I see wonderful voice and interesting plot, others see purple prose and pretentious fiction. And that’s fine.
First I read this book with curiosity and, I confess, not a little scepticism. Then I read this book with pleasure and even, perhaps, morbid anticipation. Finally, as I turned the last few pages and the book spoke to me of endings and new beginnings, I read this book with appreciation and wonder….
7. Small Favor, by Jim Butcher
The tenth book in Butcher’s bestselling Dresden Files series brings us yet another cover that showcases Harry Dresden in his trademark duster, hat, toting his trusty staff. From my review:
This may be the best Dresden Files book yet….
The blending of mystery with urban fantasy is tangible and potent. Few can do it so well. This novel is great in that respect, because urban fantasy lovers can read it and get exposed to a little mystery they might otherwise ignore; mystery lovers likewise get some urban fantasy. Yet Butcher remembers the golden rule of genre writing: the genre is a setting, not a story. This book is not about faeries, or wizards, or magic, or solving a crime. It is an action adventure with motifs of temptation, redemption, suffering, and all that makes us human. It’s a story, set in a world of faerie, magic, and crime. What’s not to like?
Anthologies are a great way to discover new authors. I picked this one up because it had stories by favourite authors like Neil Gaiman and Orson Scott Card. Along the way, I’ve come up with a few new names I can explore.
What a great way to tide us over until Martin gets around to finishing the next book in his epic A Song of Ice and Fire saga. Whether you‘re new to Martin’s work or a fan, like me, you’ll enjoy this large and varied collection of his earlier short fiction.
Martin is brave to publish Dreamsongs, which gives us—especially those of us who are younger readers and haven’t been as exposed to the short fiction magazines of Martin’s youth—a glimpse of Martin’s formative years and the works with which he became a professional author. You can clearly see his writing improve over the course of the five-part book. Yet at the same time, even his early stories carry the kernel of creativity that’s evident throughout this volume….
One of those books that every Canadian should read, this tells the chilling story of the Rwandan genocide from the perspective of the UN task force commander, Roméo Dallaire.
Daillaire’s book is commendable because even though it comes from an obviously biased source, it largely avoids obsessing over assigning blame. Instead, he chronicles what happened during tenure as Force Commander of UNAMIR. Thanks to him, future generations have a testimony as to what happened in Rwanda. Eyewitness accounts help make clear what government reports and newspaper articles cannot; they communicate the human experience one undergoes in these situations. They remind us that this isn’t fiction, so it isn’t a tragedy. It is truth, but it is injustice….
From my review:
About two hundred pages into the book, I suddenly realized that this story was breaking my heart….
The theme that resonates with me most is that childhood is the most precious innocence we have. Baby makes several philosophical remarks about childhood, how society encourages us to grow up too fast—and the fact that we can’t go back afterward. We’re stuck as adults. As an 18-year-old, I‘ve reached the legal age for adulthood. I’m venturing into that scary world of responsibility; no one treats me as a child anymore. I have the advantage of never experiencing Baby’s hardships, yet I still feel confused at times. Everyone probably does, which is why this book captures your heart….
This book was just fun to read. Yeah, it’s yet-another-book-about-adolesence, but it’s a witty one:
I Love You, Beth Cooper could be, at first glance, a typical coming-of-age story about the nerdy smart guy who falls for the popular cheerleader (or for his construction of who the popular cheerleader is). To some extent, it is such a story. But it’s not only such a story, and that isn’t the aspect of this story that makes it awesome. Rather, it’s the fact that in spite of employing such a major trope, the story is never trite, and it never tries to force a redeeming theme on the reader. Instead, anything and everything that could possibly go wrong for the protagonist does. And when things go right, they don’t always go right in the way one would expect….
1. Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri
From my review:
I went into this book not knowing what to expect, and I loved it. Jhumpa Lahiri creates timeless families that straddle the cultural divide between America and India. She captures the conflict of growing up as one tries to balance one’s parent’s wishes with the influence of one’s heritage and the culture of one’s surroundings.
Of the first part of the book, I loved “Unaccustomed Earth”, “Hell-Heaven”, and “Only Goodness.” The other two stories were great, but …more I went into this book not knowing what to expect, and I loved it. Jhumpa Lahiri creates timeless families that straddle the cultural divide between America and India. She captures the conflict of growing up as one tries to balance one’s parent’s wishes with the influence of one’s heritage and the culture of one’s surroundings….
Shortlist for the Best
Some books that made the shortlist, in no particular order:
- The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
- The Ravine, by Paul Quarrington
- House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds
- Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome, by Steven Saylor
- The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
- The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby
Top 10 Worst Books I Read in 2008
10. Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin
This may come as a surprise to those who know that I love Le Guin’s other work, or for those familiar with Le Guin’s other work—she’s a pretty big name in fantasy and feminist fiction. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give Lavinia any more than two stars. It was enjoyable, but not great:
…in places the narrative was somewhat dry, so while the setting and characters were interesting, the story was not always so. Some people might not like the narrative style either—there is very little dialogue, except in Lavinia’s conversations with Vergil. Instead, it is told in an almost stream-of-consciousness perspective, with Lavinia relaying back her interpretation of the other characters’ thoughts and actions….
9. The Sword of Truth series, by Terry Goodkind
My coworker lent each of these consecutively to me during the summer; it was sort of a “summer reading project.” Goodkind, a fantasist who insists he’s not a fantasist, crafted an 11-book series in an alternative world concerning the ultimate battle of good versus evil. Oh, and there’s lots of rape.
My advice is that you should read this series, actually—or at least the first few books. Why? Because then you’ll have more fun when you read the parodies of it, of course!
8. Beginner’s Greek, by James Collins
Actually an OK book, if you don’t mind this genre. I expect it will be a movie soon. From my review:
As with most plots of this nature, I found it utterly predictable. Certain aspects were surprising, of course—I didn’t see the best friend dying by a lightning strike on Peter’s wedding day, of course. But it was clear that Peter and Holly would end up together, somehow, and that everyone would live happily ever after. If you‘re looking for a fresh new plot with compelling characters, you won’t get it here. Oh, the characters are interesting, and you’ll end up hating most of them by the end. But you have to be able to stomach the smugness that the book exudes as all the threads come together and the loose ends get tied up.
It was OK. Enjoyable light reading, and it fulfilled my need to yell at the book when characters are being stupid and cheer when good things happen.
I empathize with Mary, who was either abducted and never properly counselled about it or engineered a fake abduction and never adjusted properly to society. But she spends most of the books complaining about how manipulative and narcissistic her mother was, and how she never got a chance to reconcile with her mother prior to her mother’s death from cancer. Although the story spends a lot of time discussing therapy and Mary’s experience with it, Mary never seems to have to exert much effort in her life or deal with any consequences (beyond her obvious estrangement from her family). She crashes a car, revisits the ghosts from her past, but at the end of the book, has she really changed from who she was at the beginning? No. And that was a disappointment.
6. Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston
A predictable mystery with a sci-fi twist, it was fine for formula fiction, but I could have done with something more satisfying.
5. Overture, by Yael Goldstein
Four words: “torrid but virginal liason”. Need I say more?2 If that intrigues you, you might like this book. If, like me, that would cause you to snap and perhaps evacuate the contents of your stomach, don‘t read this book. Because you need a stomach for plot-twisting romance, which is something I don’t have.
4. What I Was, by Meg Rosoff
This book was the origin of the “not my cup of tea” shelf on my Goodreads profile, I believe. It’s an example of how THE TWIST can ruin an otherwise acceptable book. From my review:
The first part of the book was quite intriguing. The narrator is a noncomformist boy who’s been expelled twice; this is literally the boarding school of last resort. Then he discovers a friend in the form of a boy living alone in a house on an island near the school, and the two form a tentative relationship laced with overtones of homosexuality—which is just what Rosoff wants before she pulls THE TWIST that changes everything.
Unfortunately, after THE TWIST, the book isn’t the same. It rapidly becomes a “hindsight is 20/20” sermon in which the main character regrets that he has no regrets and ultimately has not made much of his life. We are left with no resolution. It’s quite postmodernist….
3. The Last Theorem, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
As with Le Guin, I’m sad to say that Arthur C. Clarke earns a spot on this list—and at number 3! Since I don’t know how much of the book is actually Clarke’s, however, that somewhat mitigates my pain. From my review:
My major problem with the book is the lack of any consequences, or really, any conflict at all. At points the story threatens to inject a conflict—such as when Ranjit becomes an unwitting accomplice to pirates and subsequently spends two years being tortured in prison. For a moment, I thought that might produce some genuine unhappiness that could mar this otherwise oppressively upbeat book. Unfortunately, that was not the case….
I didn’t buy this book when I was tempted to at Chapters, and I’m glad of that. I read it after my dad borrowed it from the library; I almost couldn’t finish it. From my review:
The Abstinence Teacher begins by introducing us to Ruth, a divorced mom who’s the sexual education teacher at the high school in this small, conservative town. She’s under siege at school for wanting to teach safe sex instead of just abstinence. Meanwhile, she picks fights with her younger daughter’s soccer coach, a born-again evangelical Christian, for leading the team in a prayer after a game. And she neglects her older daughter, which drives that daughter to seek meaning through—you guessed it—Christianity. Oh, and she wants to find a man. And she’s friends with a gay couple.
I’m not making this up.
See, that’s my problem with this novel: it’s too contrived. I say too contrived because I realize that most novels, especially ones with overt thematic agendas like this one, need to be contrived to an extent. Perrotta has gone further than that, however, because he weaves sexuality into every aspect of the book and uses stereotypes like “the gay couple” to advance his theme. Others may not have a problem with this, but I found it awkward and artificial….
1. The Art Thief, by Noah Charney
For the love of whatever deity(ies) you worship, or don’t worship, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. EVER.
This is an example of a book that isn’t anyone‘s cup of tea. Noah Charney’s career in art history is obvious in this book, since he spends so much time lecturing us about art history, at the expense of the plot. Ostensibly a mystery, whenever that story threatens to become interesting, Charney beats it back into submission with a baseball bat and resumes showing us how brilliant he is.
Shortlist for the Worst
None of these books made it on the list because I disliked all of them, but they aren’t very bad books. As such, while they weren’t to my taste, if you think you’ll enjoy them, you could do worse than these:3
- The Book of Lies, by Brad Meltzer
- Nightshade, by Paul Doherty
- The Society of S, by Susan Hubbard4
- Mistress of the Sun, by Sandra Gulland
One Last Plug
And in case I haven’t linked to Goodreads enough for one blog post, here’s my profile so you can stalk me. If you’re on Goodreads, feel free to add me as a friend. If you‘re not, and you like reading, why aren’t you?!
That’s it for the best and worst books I read in 2008. It was fun, no? Come back in 363 days or so, and we’ll do this all over again.
I did a terrible thing today. I bought more books.
This is how it works: Chapters is located in a mega-lot that also includes Staples, Future Shop, and Wal-Mart, any of which I may need to visit a couple of times a month to purchase stuff. However, when my body comes in proximity to Chapters, my addiction centre sends signals to my legs to move in that general direction. Once in Chapters, I am utterly at the mercy of how the sales staff has laid out their enticing displays.
The books on the left are from a previous expedition—actually, the two Umberto Eco books and Sundiver (the book I’m reading right now) came from Chapters Online. I love their shipping. The book with the spine faced away from the camera is Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. I forgot to turn it the proper way before I snapped this photo. Stephen Baker was interviewed in a recent episode of Spark, so I decided to purchase his book. Similarly, I bought The Stillborn God today because Mark Lilla was on Ideas.
The books on the right are from today’s expedition. My dad generously orders Chapters gift cards with his Air Miles (best use of Air Miles ever!). Thanks to him, my iRewards discount, my coupon, and some in-store discounts, I only spent $15.81 of my own money today. Thanks, dad! In addition to The Stillborn God, I couldn’t resist an anthology of over sixty short stories by Canadian authors. Another Salman Rushdie book caught my eye. The Assassin’s Song is more Indian fiction, which I‘m finding I enjoy more and more. And of course, I couldn’t buy books without getting Neil Gaiman‘s latest book, The Graveyard Book! Lastly, I purchased Watchmen to lend to people in case they were interested in reading the graphic novel before seeing the movie that’s coming out next year.
Am I addicted? Yes. Thanks to discounts and gift cards, it’s mitigated to the point where my addiction is not a problem—for now.1 Hopefully, as I get older, I will adopt a less expensive habit, like sneaking into photos of local sports teams, or compulsively stealing the 32nd page of every phone book in the city.
In fact, if you‘ve read this and are bored, why don’t you leave a comment with an idea of some truly unusual addictions? Stretch that imagination a bit!
- [ 1 ] Sort of like in House, where House admits he’s addicted to vicodin but doesn’t have a problem.
Last February, I drew your attention to Harper Collins’ free online browsing of American Gods. Well, they are doing if again, this time with Neverwhere!
You can read it for free or download it as a PDF. You don’t get to keep it forever (the PDF will self-destruct in thirty days) but it’s an excellent offering nonetheless.
I mean, I could go off on a tangent about how self-destructing PDFs is an example of “tethered appliances” taking over the Internet and taking away our control over what content we can access. Then I could casually mention Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. But I won’t.
Literacy is wonderful. I love reading. I spent most of this summer reading Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, fed to me by my coworker. So I went to the library for the first time this summer last week and got out the books you see in the stack on the right. Three of those books are the second or fifth book in a series, however, so I’ll need to read the other books in those series before I can begin reading them. Naturally I made a list of books I wanted to get at the library. However, I forgot the list at home, and I ended up not needing it anyway, because I pretty much took home the New Books shelf, as I often do.
But first, The Pillars of the Earth! I bought that copy for my friend Carly for Christmas. She foolishly1 mentioned that she was intending to read The Pillars of the Earth, and she did indeed have a copy, although it was a tattered paperback. There’s nothing wrong with cherished tattered paperbacks, but trade paperbacks are wubbly too. Now I’m finally ste—er, borrowing—this from her so I can read it.
The books in the stack below Pillars all came from Chapters. I love shopping at Chapters! Their shipping is amazingly fast. At first I was just ordering The Lies of Locke Lamora, Sundiver, and The Name of the Rose, because my local library does not have any of these. However, that was still under the $34 minimum needed for free shipping, and I figured the difference was small enough that adding an extra book would be a better value—so I bought Foucault’s Pendulum as well. Another coworker has recommended Umberto Eco to me. We shall see!
I don’t think I’ve mentioned Goodreads much yet—I linked to it once obscurely in my entry trumpeting the new site design, but otherwise it’s just been sitting in my sidebar there. For those of you other bibliophiles out there, you can see what books I’m reading on the sidebar, and if you follow the link to my profile, you can learn what other books I‘ve read or plan to read and even read reviews I’ve left on some. Goodreads is a fantastic site; I have a terrible memory, so being able to keep track of my books in this fashion is quite helpful. Plus, it lets me see what my friends are reading. I’ll often see my friends reading something interesting and mark it as to-read for the future. It’s a great way to get suggestions.
- [ 1 ] Never mention to me that you have nothing to read or that you are planning to read book x but don’t have it. Many a friend has realized the error of such statements in my presence.
I own a copy of American Gods, of course, so it’s redundant for me. Nevertheless, it’s extremely cool because, hey, let’s face it: it’s free stuff. And it exposes more people to Neil Gaiman and one of his wonderful novels.
So, as the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation says, Share and Enjoy!™
Update (2011): People keep finding this post somehow. I suspect they are googling for “read American Gods for free” or something of that sort, to which I say: dude, local library. Book piracy is dumb. Anyway, I keep getting comments saying, “It’s not the whole book! It’s just an excerpt!” This blog post was written in 2008. The entire book was available, back in 2008, and then after a certain amount of time, they removed the entire book and replaced it with an excerpt. Deal with it.
Last updated Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 7:12 AM
Got your attention, didn’t I?
Neil Gaiman, one of the greatest authors of our era, is going to offer one of his books online for free to celebrate the seventh birthday of his blog. But that’s not the best part. We get to choose which book! Head on over to his blog and vote for the book you want to see online for free. Take his advice, though, and instead of voting necessarily for your favourite book, vote for the one you’d give to a friend. I just introduced a friend of mine to Neil Gaiman and lent her my copy of American Gods.