io9 is a blog that confuses me. The tag line is "We come from the future," which is open enough to allow them to post whatever they like (and who am I to tell them how to live their lives?) but to me I think of it as a science fiction/fantasy blog.
They do, in fact, post lots of SSF stuff, which is why I subscribe, but they also post random crap which I skip. No biggie, but it does confuse me.
Grant is the author of the amazing zombie journalism series, Newsflesh — and now, she's back with a new series about a biotech dystopia. In the near future, everybody is free of disease thanks to genetically modified tapeworms that live in our guts. Unfortunately, it turns out that these little creatures have an agenda of their own.
I haven't read Parasite, since it isn't out and all, and it might be great. I have read the Newsflesh series (here, here, and here) and I can tell you one thing it is not: amazing. Unless, of course, Annalee meant "amazingly terrible."
Marisa and I found ourselves at the Chestnut Street location yesterday and within 30 seconds being in the store I found one book I had been wanting. I quickly found two more books and then decided I should leave before I found even more books!
I was surprised to see each of these books in the store since they are all pretty recent releases, but I'm not complaining. And after looking at Amazon, all these books are new enough that the price I paid for the physical copy was less than the Kindle version (and less than any of the used copies available on Amazon itself).
I get neat books for cheap and support the Free Library. What's not to like?
I was not! It seems Reddit user KodyRite came across my picture somewhere on the Internet (it happens), and decided my face could launch a meme called "Downer Dave." The idea being: I congratulate someone on some good news, and then add some sad little sentence at the end.
I was amused (still am, really) and so I tweeted about it and went to bed.
The logical next step happened: Redditors in the comments section assumed this was a sad cry for attention from the person pictured (i.e. me) who must have submitted his own photo to create a meme featuring himself.
There are a couple of problems with this line of thinking:
I am not KodyRite (as of a little while ago I am blankbaby on Reddit).
Even if I were a frequent Redditor I would never submit a picture of myself to the site. Why? Because I'm a fat geek with a beard, the perfect target for untold numbers of insults from Redditors.
Today I went out to meet a friend and came home to find this in my Inbox:
The comments, as one might expect, aren't too kind to the chubby bearded fellow claiming to have had sex with some fictional lady. That being said most people seem to be more upset by the text alignment issues in the picture, which is pretty awful. Had I created this picture I can assure you that the text would have been properly aligned, and the joke would have been funnier.
My reaction to all this? Amused befuddlement. I did create a Reddit account so I could comment and say, "Nope, I didn't post this," knowing full well that it doesn't really matter if the story is true. To channel Steven Colbert: it feels true, and that's good enough.
Also, I look pretty good in that picture, don't ya think?
Some mistake my love of Kindles for a rejection of traditional books. This is foolish. I love reading and therefore I love anything that allows me to read books: Kindles, printed books, libraries, bookstores, and so on.
When you couple my love of books with my slightly obsessive compulsive personality (BUY! ALL! THE! BOOKS!) you get shelves groaning with unread books.
All these unread books don't stop me from buying more books (mostly used, some Kindle books) and adding them to the shelves. It also doesn't stop me from taking out 2-3 books each time I visit the Free Library.
I guess what I'm saying is that I like to read.
Marisa, in reaction to this behavior of ours (she's also a bookworm, though since she's a fancy pants food blogger she also tends to get 3-4 cookbooks in the mail a week from publishers hoping that she'll write about them), has declared this month "Read What We Already Own" month.
The idea is simple: this month we'll only read books we own. No new books, no library books. Just books from the apartment.
Good thing we have hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of books to choose from so it won't be a hardship.
This year not only have I read all the Hugo nominated novels, novelettes, novellas, and short stories I even ponied up the dough so I could actually vote on which will win.
I won't let this AWESOME power go to my head. I promise. Not even a little.
Anyway, only three short stories were nominated this year which makes me a little sad. I'm certain that two more stories out there could have made the cut, but they didn't. This also makes me thing that I really need to start writing some short stories.
Random Scott Writing Aside
When Ray Bradbury died I started watching/reading about him. I'd read some of his stuff, and I knew he was a great writer but I didn't really know much about him. Someone once asked him how he became such a master at writing short stories. His answer, paraphrased, was to write a short story a week for a year. At the end of the year you'll have 52 stories and one of them is bound to be good!
This inspired me to start a file in Evernote with ideas about short stories, none of which I have yet written because I'm a horrible person.
/Random Scott Writing Aside
Since there are only three stories nominated (and one of those stories is very, very short) why not read them all? Here they are, freely available for your eyeball pleasure:
I'm not going to tell you which gets my vote just yet, since I spilled the beans about that on a not yet released episode of The Incomparable. Once that episode is posted I'll have a post with all my picks and the reasoning behind them (as if anyone cares).
The last couple of weeks have been heavy on the D&D for me. First, the long time in the planning the Incomparable D&D session happened over the weekend. The podcast isn't up, but you can watch it on YouTube if you're into that sort of thing (and who isn't).
Let me know what you think of the piece. I'm very curious because this kind of writing is outside of my comfort zone. I'm also concerned that the last section makes me out to be something of a sociopath, but I'm really not! You can trust me, I totally have "human" "emotions."
Ever since I started a concerted effort to read all the Hugo nominated novels (check out the Incomparable episodes: 2011 and 2012) I've been disappointed with the awards in general for two reasons: my own misconceptions and Mira Grant. Oddly enough, they are related to one another.
In my mind the Hugo award nominees represent the finest, most creative and interesting writing done in science fiction novels during the previous year. While this is true for some nominees that's not what the Hugos are. The Hugos are voted on by the readers, which means that at the basest level the Hugos are a popularity contest.
Which explains why every novel in the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant has been nominated. I'm sure Ms. Grant is a lovely woman, and clearly there are people who enjoy her work. Kudos to her! But do her novels represent the best that science fiction has to offer? No, they do not. However, lots of people like her and her books are very easy to read and are fun if you don't mind overly repetitious prose, blunt force world building, borderline incest, cardboard villains, and rudimentary plotting.
I will be reading all of the nominated novels for the Incomparable yet again. Luckily I've already read 3 out of 5. Here's the list:
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit): One of two I haven't read yet. I was going to read it when it first came out but my good old pal Glenn Fleishman said it was crap, so I passed. Looks like I'll have a chance to form my own opinion.
Blackout, Mira Grant (Orbit): Savvy readers might guess this is the other novel I haven't read yet. I'll go into it with an open mind, promise!
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen): Bujold is a great writer, though this isn't a great book. It is fun, but I don't think it is award winning. You don't have to take my word on it, listen to the Incomparable book club wherein we discuss the book in detail.
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi (Tor): Another fun book that isn't really a good book. Scalzi isn't shy about the fact that his aim isn't high literature but rather readable works that lots of people will buy. He did it in spades with this book, and I think his big old royalty checks are award enough. We also did an episode of the Incomparable on this book.
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW): I was surprised, in a good way, to see this book on the list. Out of the 3 I've read, this would be the one I would vote for. Sure, it reads like an awesome D&D adventure, but I really liked the setting and the characters.
Nine books that should have been nominated
It is all well and good to complain about the books that got nominated, but a real critic should provide some alternatives. Looking over what I read last year that were Hugo eligible, I've come up with nine books that should have been on the list:
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller: I didn't declare this book the best book I read in January 2013 for nothing, folks! Sure, it isn't as good as the Road but is far better written than some of the nominated novels. "But, Scott," you say, "This isn't science fiction!" Umm, yes it is, dude. The post-apocalypse thing is totally science fiction. Word.
Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson: I'm actually surprised this one wasn't nominated (though perhaps it wasn't in the running for some reason). Set in the immediate future, this story tells the tale of a hacker who gets into a mess of trouble. Wonderfully written, though I suppose some might argue the "science fiction" distinction here.
The Islanders, Christopher Priest: I love me some unreliable narrators, and this book is like a delicate cloud of unreliability. Billed as a guide to a series of islands, this book is so much more. Inventive and, dare I say, brilliant? Also, it isn't obviously science fiction but come on people, the genre is flexible!
Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone: A legal thriller with magic and dead gods? What's not to like?
The Fractal Prince, Hannu Rajaniemi: When I think about people pushing the boundaries of science fiction I think of Rajaniemi. This book is fantastic, cerebral, and unlike anything I've read (well, other than the first book in the series).
Sharps, K.J. Parker: OK, so Parker will never be nominated for a Hugo for best novel (I'm willing to bet) which just makes me sad. Sure, he (or she) writes brutal stories with characters that you really don't like but they are so well done. Sharps isn't Parker's best but even at 75% of his/her best it is better than most of the nominated novels I've read.
The Mirage Matt Ruff: An alternate reality book which imagines what would happen is the Middle East had developed into the world's dominant culture and western terrorists crashed into the Middle Eastern World Trade Center. Thought provoking, well written, and worthy of an award.
Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal: I've read all three of the currently available Glamourist History books and I've really enjoyed them. The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, was something of a small, quiet story. The second volume builds on that story and makes it much bigger and adds in a dash of action. Don't let the YA covers scare you off from these books, they are smart reads for discerning readers.
There you have it, add my voice to the chorus bellyaching about the Hugos. Of course, say what you will be the awards but at least they get people talking about, and writing about, science fiction. That can't be a bad thing, right?
I read a lot, but I tend not to stray from the safe confines of fiction. I don't why, but non-fiction generally doesn't do it for me. This is what makes my choice for the Best Book of the Month for February 2013 all the more unusual.
Not only is Carthage Must Be Destroyed non-fiction but it also happened to enter my reading queue during the same month that Great North Road was released. Peter F. Hamilton (author of The Great North Road) is on my list of immediate reads, but his latest was soundly beaten by Carthage Must Be Destroyed.
I've long been interested in Ancient History. In fact, if I had bothered to fill out the paperwork I would have minored in it during college (I had enough credits but I also loathe paperwork). Generally, my reading/interest centers around the Romans which lead me to believe that the Carthaginians were just an also ran society that the Romans rolled over during their conquest of the known world.
And that speaks to the central thesis of the book: since Carthage was so completely destroyed everything that we know of it (outside of archeological digs) comes from historical sources that are decidedly biased (the Greeks and the Romans cast Carthage as their "other," meaning that even though for many years most of the trade in the Mediterranean involved Carthaginians they were not a well liked people).
I learned a lot of interesting things about Carthage including:
They had a handful of names that they used over and over again which vexes historians ("No, not THAT Hannibal. Nope, not that one either. Oh, never mind.").
They invented many ship building innovations which made them the unrivaled naval power of their time (until those pesky Romans ruined it all).
The book is a little slow to start but really picks up in the Punic War section when Rome and Carthage clash for the first time. It was incredibly interesting to see how Rome, a relative newcomer, was able to soundly defeat Carthage which was one of the superpowers of the Ancient World. It even inspired me to pitch an article comparing the Roman's use of a specific technical innovation to basically negate Carthage's naval advantage to the way Apple out foxed RIM (sadly the editor pitched said it was too obscure. What the hell are kids learning today if not about the Punic Wars?!).
Anyway, the book is well worth a read if you're interested in a view of the ancient world from a different vantage point.
The soda that emerged from all of Moskowitz’s variations became known as Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, and it proved successful beyond anything Cadbury imagined. In 2008, Cadbury split off its soft-drinks business, which included Snapple and 7-Up. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group has since been valued in excess of $11 billion.
I've long had illusions that I'd write a review of every book I read, however, since I read over 70 books last year and wrote a review for one or two of them that goal seems unrealistic.
Therefore, a new feature of Blankbaby is born: the best book of the month! Hurrah!
Last month (January 2013) I read a total of 10 books, all fiction. There were a number of good books in the running, but the best book I read that month was: The Dog Stars.
The Dog Stars is set in a world ravaged by a pandemic (an out of control super flu) which killed off lots and lots of the world's population. The story follows Hig whose wife and child died of the flu. Now he's holed up with Bangley who seems to have waited his entire life for something like this to happen. Hig isn't happy, but he's making a go of it with his trusty dog at his side and frequent trips in a small airplane to scout for dangers, and other survivors.
I won't recap the story since there are some surprising bits, but it is well written and worth your time. I will say, however, that while I thought it was a good book it is unfortunate that it contains some echoes of The Road. Why is this bad? The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is a brilliant literary achievement next to which most books would pale in comparison. Add in similar story lines and The Dog Stars just can't hold a candle to The Road.
That being said, The Dog Stars is good it just isn't great.
That's a picture of me 6 years ago (and many pounds heavier… sheesh. I think I'm fat now but I forget how much progress I have made!) at the Suburban Square Apple Store grand opening. How times have changed.
Not only have I lost some weight, and look much more handsome, I also don't like going to the Apple Store any more. The fine folks over at Macworld asked me to explain why, and the result was this: Why I dread going to the Apple Store.
Somehow I don't think this is going to be popular over at Macworld.
Whenever I launch an app on my Mac for the first time I immediately launch the preferences and change the default font settings. As I've aged so have my eyes, so I need to increase the size (the super high resolution monitors haven't helped my eyes, sure the picture looks great but everything is even smaller!).
And I generally change the font face to Calibri which might be among the great things Microsoft has ever created. I don't know why I love this font, but I do.
Good job, Microsoft typography team!
As a reader, and a person, I tend to fixate on things. I have spent days listening to the same song over and over again (one inexplicable example: A View to a Kill by Duran Duran), and countless hours watching episode after episode of TV shows.
When I stumble upon a new author (well, new to me) and find that I love his work I go a little wild. I read about the author, I follow them on Twitter, and I subscribe to their blog. Oh, and I read a bunch of their books too.
Thanks to my involvement with the Incomparable (a fine podcast filled with geeky delights) I've been reading all the Hugo nominated novels for the last couple of years (2011, 2012). Sometimes this makes me happy, and sometimes not so much.
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald was nominated for a Hugo in 2011, and so I knew I was going to read it. For some reason I thought it was a sequel to River of Gods, an earlier novel by the same author, so I picked that up from the library.
Wow. It was a great book, and it really set my expectations high for the Dervish House (which I found out had nothing to do with River of Gods). After reading the Dervish House I knew two things to be true:
I would read whatever McDonald publishes in the future.
The Dervish House would win the Hugo hands down.
I was only right about one of those things (Connie Willis won the Hugo for Blackout/All Clear which were the only nominees that year I hadn't read), but McDonald was certainly upgraded to an author whose books I buy no matter what they are about.
The YA problem
McDonald's novels are complex stories intricately plotted featuring characters in non-Western cultures (generally speaking). The neat thing about setting his novels of the near future in cultures that I am not super familair with is that it transforms me, as the reader, into "the other." I'm the one that is sort of an alien, as opposed to the characters I'm reading about in this science fiction novel.
Narrative complexity like this appeals to me, which is why I loathe Young Adult novels (YA, for those in the know). Since they're written for a younger audience a more straightforward story is needed, which leave out all the interlocking stories that seemingly have nothing to do with each other until that beautiful moment when it all clicks into place (at least in a well written novel).
When I heard McDonald was going to start writing a YA book I was nervous because I knew I had to read it, and that my bias against the genre wouldn't make it easy for me to like it.
That book was Planesrunner, the first in the Everness Series following the adventures of a teenage boy (what else?) as he tracks down his father through the multiverse. To sum up my thoughts of Planesrunner I offer you one word: disappointment.
Gone were the interweaving plots. Good bye to the myriad of characters. Hello straightforward story, typical YA hero, and fairly well trod scifi tropes.
The book read like a very well written episode of Sliders with a main character who is just like normal kids except he's a math genius who can cook (which is admittedly a nice touch).
I wasn't thrilled with it, but it was a solid book overall (though if it hadn't been written by McDonald I never would have picked it up in the first place).
Now the second book in the series, Be My Enemy, is out and I've just finished reading it the other day (I finish reading series that I begin, damn it!).
Happily, Be My Enemy is a much better book than Planesrunner. I'm not sure if that is a result of my lowered expectations (as set by Planesrunner) or if this book is just better. I tend to lean towards the latter since McDonald seems to be playing with some of the very ideas that made the first book a bit cliche in interesting ways.
At one point a character says something long the lines of, "This is an alternate universe, of course there are airships." That made me laugh out loud (LOL as the kids say).
The central premise of the series remains unchanged: our 14 year old hero Everett Singh must track down his father who has been shot into a random universe by mysterious agents of the Plenitude embodied by the main villianess Charlotte Villiers (who gives me shades of Marisa Coulter). There are 10 Earths that have discovered one another by inventing Heisenberg Gates which allow them to jump from one Universe to the next. In some universes this is a known fact, in others it is a secret.
The first book see Everett teaming up with an airship crew, and he is still with the same crew in the second book.
While the setup isn't all that orignal (special kid goes on quest, fights adults) the concept of Alters (introduced in the first book) is explored during the course of this book to great effect.
Given there are multiple universes it stands to reason that there are multiple versions of people too. The other versions of you in other universes are known as Alters. Everett is confronted with his own Alter who has been altered (see what I did there?) by a colony of aliens who, in the Alter's universe, live on the moon (the aliens are kind of neat, but I won't spoil them for you). Pressed into service by Villiers and her male Alter, the Alter Everett is made into a weapon to track down Everett and get the map of the multiverse.
Alter Everett is placed on Earth 10 (our Earth) to replace real Everett at school. Everett then decides he's going to rescue his family (well, mom and kid sister) before continuing to look for his dad. That doesn't go well, but we get to see Alter Everett power up his internal weapon systems and blast some stuff only to be outsmarted by real Everett (just before this fight Villiers reminds Alter Everett that he is just a tool, the real Everett is the important one).
After that battle a good chunk of the action happens on Earth 1 which has been quarantined for mysterious reasons. No one can jump into the world, with the exception of Everett and his airship buddies (who have his map of the multiverse that he figured out based on his father's work, and which the villains want) and his Alter (who gets there thanks to the moon aliens). The mystery of why this Earth was quarantined is pretty easily solved by a frequent science fiction reader, though McDonald does offer an interesting twist of a modern scifi chestnut (I'm really trying to avoid spoilers). On Earth 1 there's some chase scenes, characters trying to figure out the obvious, and a couple of twists that I didn't see coming.
The Alter Everett makes a critical deal towards the end of the book which will have a great impact on the third (and final?) volume in the series. I must admit I had a hard time accepting that anyone would make the deal he did (once again, avoiding spoilers) but he is a 14 year old who is being manipulated by people… so I bought it.
The writing is solid, with some glimpses of McDonald's true talent (I get the feeling that he was holding back since this is a YA book, though one could argue he is just stretching other writerly muscles with this series). There are a couple of false notes when McDonald tries very hard to write like a 14 year old would think/talk, like this: "His body felt out the different slopes and structures an slipperinesses of the roofs. Just like a real-life version of the Assassin's Creed video game." But those are few and far between (thank goodness).
At this point I'm surprised to say I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series. The first book left me cold, but my interest in McDonald's work convinced me to stick with it, and I feel like the pay off is going to be worth it.
A few words about the Kindle edition
I read the Kindle version of Be My Enemy, which is my preferred version of a new book that I don't have any real reason to own as a keepsake (some books are just better as physical artifacts, and older books tend to be way cheaper when you buy a used copy vs. a digital copy). For some reason Pyr, McDonald's publisher, delayed the reason of the Kindle book for 2 weeks. I have no idea why, but it was very annoying to me.
Furthermore, if you're going to delay the Kindle book you really need to make sure the ebook formatting is spot on. I was more than 3/4 of the way through the book before I realized the chapters were numbered. The chapter number graphic was so faint as to be nigh on impossible to read on my eInk Kindle's screen (and I have the fancy new Paperwhite).
If I’m to be completely honest, Be My Enemy didn’t blow me away as completely as Planesrunner did. That’s partly because it’s, well, a sequel. A sequel to an outstanding novel, granted, but still, some familiarity sets in. The surprise factor wears off, ever so slightly.
In softer hands these books could become a "monster of the week" series but here there are consequences, none more so than when Everett is punched in the stomach by an authority figure. This basic, personal violence is a reminder that this is not a game and that even a genius can't get through unscathed. I can't wait to see what happens next.
In Enemy, there's a lot more of what made Planesrunner great -- tremendous action scenes, cunning escapes, genius attacks on the ways that multidimensional travel might be weaponized, horrific glimpses of shadowy powers and sinister technologies.