I went pretty heavy on fiction this time, with a lot of sci-fi. Nerds! Speaking of, I’ve yammered on a lot about e-reader apps in this space, so to add to that I’ll say now that Apple fixed whatever weird bug it was I mentioned last time where hitting the right side of the screen would take you backwards in iBooks. That was bad. It’s no longer so. Good job Jobs’ ghost! I read most of these in OverDrive though which is also great.
Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (1984)
An essay I saw on Salon.com prompted me to look for this one. If it’s the earliest example of this particular form then I can see that it was influential, though the only other book like it that I could think of was the Mysteries of Pittsburg my Michael Chabon. That’s (part of) why I don’t do this for money.
Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm (2000)
I think this is the last of them, of the Erik Larson books I can track down. Big historical event, check. Relatively overlooked persons (historically speaking) with compelling storylines that interweave in unexpected ways with aforementioned historical event, check. Conflict, drama, etc. OK we got a bestseller.
Daniel Suarez, Daemon (2006); Freedom (2010)
It’s like the Internet but better. A combination techno-thriller, mystery, and Bildungsroman, if you will. Imagine Google Glass going horribly wrong. Or horribly right, it’s not clear. Very fun reading.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Voices (2008); Powers (2009)
The sequels to Gifts, which I talked about last time. Each story focuses on a child/adolescent character dealing with some personal crisis (town occupied by barbarians, being a runaway slave, that sort of thing) who happens also to be coming to terms with a particular supernatural (or at least extraordinary) ability. Eventually each story ties in with characters we met in Gifts. It’s all fine and very Le Guin-y, good times.
Various authors, Lightspeed: Year One (2011)
I picked this up (or downloaded, rather) as I was on an Ursula K. Le Guin streak and she has a story in here. Other people do too, and holy crap there are some great stories. And lots of them, this thing took forever to finish. Naturally I didn’t take notes on which stories I liked the best, so I’ll have to go back and pick those authors out. Steven King had a good one. Ursula’s was good too but not the best in here.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)
A classic, apparently, I didn’t know. Interesting to see how Ms. Le Guin’s writing has changed since this early novel. In it she has ideas about authoritarianism versus socialism and plants them on a fictional alien planet and its moon (respectively), imagining that the closest thing you could have to a utopia would necessarily be compromised and not exactly Club Med. Or maybe it is like Club Med? I don’t really know what that is. Anyway, good stuff.
Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives (2004); The Jennifer Morgue (2006); The Fuller Memorandum (2010)
These are fun, and part of what’s fun about them is that you can observe Mr. Stross improve as a writer across this series. Subject-wise they’re kind of like Maisie Dobbs for geeks. They’re mysteries, of sorts, but of the deus-ex-machina James Bond variety where the reader’s not in a position to Hercule-Poireu anything. You’re pretty much just along for the (sometimes unintelligible) ride.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006)
Dawkins has been painted as the Pope of atheism, as a sort of irreligious fundamentalist, but after finally reading one of his books I don’t think that’s fair. I do think I see where it comes from. First, he is very smart and extremely well-read, knowledgeable through his own decades of research in biology, and kind of a stickler for logic. Those qualities are usually annoying. Second, he seems to take a lot of joy in showing off how smart he is and pointing out exactly where others are misguided. Finally, he has the impetuousness to assert his conclusions against a majority that doesn’t want to hear them. To some this might appear fanatical, but it might just be extremely brave.
As I progressed though this book my initial impression of Dawkins as a sort of precocious know-it-all was replaced with an image of someone so awed by the workings of the world, particularly the biological world, as revealed by scientific understanding that he is frustrated and saddened by those who refuse to see it for themselves — or worse, those who would deny it for everyone.
As an aside, it was interesting to note that the world’s most famous atheist claims not to be atheist, insisting rather that he’s technically agnostic. He goes on to point out, however, that agnostically treating religious claims in terms of probabilities makes the distinction more or less irrelevant.
Charles Stross, Glasshouse (2006)
This one was just plain badass, with Stross hitting his stride as a writer right about here. I don’t know how many of the ideas in here are original to him. I’m guessing a lot of it is taken from Kurzweil and others’ ideas about the Singularity and post-human futures where technology has caught up with consciousness. Either way it’s fun stuff. Not unlike the Daniel Suarez books reviewed previously, or a lot of Cory Doctorow stories, or William Gibson, or OK so this is fairly well-worn territory. Still, not bad.
Charles Stross, ???
At this point I was on a roll with this author, but I read a couple of other things by him that were so hit and miss that they lost me. I don’t remember now what they were, which means it’s time to move on.
Dan Simmons, Ilium (2003), Olympos (2005)
Ilium is so bizarrely, wildly weird and creative I was dazzled for a while there. Just describing the premise: a classics professor from Indiana circa 1996 is resurrected hundreds of years in the future by certain Greek gods in order to monitor and record the Trojan war, which seems to be happening on Mars. In the meantime, humans are living on Earth, but not many of them, and they’re kept in a state of idiocy by robots, while not aging (the humans, not the robots — though I guess they don’t age either). Also in the meantime, another bunch of robots are hanging around Jupiter, reading Proust and Shakespeare, and planning a mission to go see what all is happening on on Mars and Earth.
And it all works, for the most part. As the story goes along (which it does for thousands of pages and on into Olympos) these ideas are spun into some kind of sense. As is the case in a lot of stories that start out showing great promise, however (I’m thinking the TV show Lost, or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves), explaining all that great stuff necessarily kills the intrigue and/or becomes tedious and silly. Still, it was overall pretty awesome, and Simmons keeps it interesting in part by showing off a crazy amount of scholarly knowledge of Proust, Homer, and Shakespeare.
Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (2011)
My brother gave this to me for my birthday, thanks John!
So, Steve Jobs… this book makes the young Jobs appear much less impressive than his later self. The impression I got of early Jobs is one of a magalomaniacal bully who lucked out big time, meeting the right people with the right talents at the right time and knowing how to exploit them for gain, while also being something of a crybaby.
Then later, a transformation: into competence. And a remarkable competence at that, along with amazing drive and energy. But still basically a jerk, which, what can you say. Jerks move the world.
I’m going to stop here because I’ve been taking too long to write these, and I’m way behind.