2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312_kim_stanley_robinsonEvery few years I’ll think that I don’t read enough science fiction, and that I should dive into some hard SF opus or other, have my mind expanded by all the intergalactic worldgalaxy-building, quantum-powered futurology, and whatnot. My effort for 2016 was 2012’s 2312. And boy was it an effort.

This well-reviewed, Nebula-award winning novel from Kim Stanley Robinson is stuffed with plausible science and technofantasy. It’s packed with interesting ideas: asteroids terraformed from the inside out; the balkanisation of the settled solar system that forms the plot’s political backdrop; the mercurial gender fluidity that propels (kinda) the love story between the two protagonists.

Top marks for the Science. For the Fiction end of things, ehh, not so much.

The best prose is reserved for phenomena. Sunrise on Mercury is “a perpetual blue snarl of hot and hotter”, the sun’s corona dancing fantastically, “all the magnetized arcs and short circuits, the masses of burning hydrogen pitched out at the night”. These passages are enjoyably poetic, but in the main they merely describe, and seldom advance the plot or reveal character.

Human-scale interactions are clumsy, and at times clichéd.Coffee cups are waved around excitedly. The “heroine”, Swan Er Hong (admittedly a great name), beats her tiny fists in frustration against the oversized chest of the “hero”, Wahram.

Props to Robinson for his prescience in populating his novel with gender-fluid characters, in advance of the gender debate going mainstream. At one point he lists 30-odd different genders, and there is a sex scene wherein each party is both – erm – docker and docked. (An inventive, if completely unsexy scene.)

But this gender fluidity has negligible effect on the plot, and less on the characters. Swan is currently more female than male, Wahram more male than female, and as per the fist-beating scene above, there’s nothing aside from the bare facts of birthing history and gentials to give any sense of what that all might mean for their identity, their personality, their character.

Similarly, by now humans have begun speciation, with “talls” and “smalls” hailing from different areas in the solar system. But does this have much bearing on the narrative? Only once, during a gravity failure on an evacuating spaceship:

Genette stumped about them, cheerfully giving orders, and they dragged Wahram to a wall with a railing. Once there Wahram was able to pull himself along on his knees, red-faced and gasping. He fixed Genette with a bulbous eye.

“Thank you, I can proceed now. Please go help someone who can’t. I’m happy to see how the laws of proportion help you here, my friend.”

The inspector paused briefly to mime a stalwart boxer’s stance. “Every small takes up the call! None never yet died by natural cause!”

The boxer’s stance, the clunky dialogue… yeesh! In fact that whole episode is a nadir, with conversations about whether the ship’s insurance will compensate everyone EVACUATED INTO SPACE, and regular reassurances that everyone is going to/has escaped the vessel unharmed, and merely has to wait around to be collected. OK, so Wahram and Swan float around a while, but on a ship with hundreds (thousands?) of people, there are no casualties?

And here’s the worst fault. THERE ARE NO STAKES. There is a world-remaking event on Earth, which is planned sketchily, executed undramatically, and has absolutely no consequences. There is a flimsy mystery, with distant actors. Swan meets no resistance in her attempts to clear it all up, which she does a good hundred pages (if not more) after the mystery has been clear for even the most oblivious reader. There is danger at the start of the book, which arrives without foreshadowing or warning, and which is followed by MULTIPLE chapters of WALKING, interspersed only with whistling and episodes of diahrrea.

It was vexing at the time, now I spell it out like that, it’s downright baffling. And that’s one of the stronger sections of the book. As it goes on, the writing becomes more uneven. There are sentences so downright baffling that they only make sense as placeholders of a work in progress:

Everything on the water moved at a watery pace, including the water itself.

And it’s a real shame, because – digressions on space economics aside (shades of The Phantom Menace) – the interesting ideas never stop flowing. Interstitial chapters function as brain dumps for a lot of this background, written in snippets as if excavated from found documents, though it left me wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have incorporated all that world-building in the narrative, saving leftover concepts for another work.

I want to remember this book for this kind of thing:

if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will? Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose? Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains? Is a programmed will a servile will? Is human will a servile will? And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?

But it’s too much to have to wade through all that clunkiness, the cliché and unintentional comedy. I rarely leave a book unfinished, so persisted with this, but redemption never came, and it’ll be another few years before I dare scratch the hard sci-fi itch again.

Priorities: Reading v Writing v Due Date

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsNo GoodReads Reading Challenge for me this year. I reached last year’s target, again thanks to a few choice graphic novels/comic hardbacks to counterbalance doorstep’s like The Luminaries. But TB-brutally-H it felt as if I was reading to bump up the book count, with the target always to finish fast. Is that conducive to good reading? Wide reading, intensive reading, yes. Clinical, technical, checkbox reading, yes. Not so much with the luxuriating in a text, wallowing there, inhabiting it body and soul.

There’s also the twinge of cynicism I can’t help but feel about GoodReads now that it’s Amazon-owned. In that light, the Reading Challenge just feels like a prompt to buy, buy, buy more inventory.

Reading is no problem. But it’s writing I need to be doing more of. Isn’t that always the complaint? Write, write more, write about anything. To blah or not to blah. Here it comes, another blogpost about blogposts. *SHUDDERS*

It’s never a thoughtful blogpost for me. Is that a mistake? Instead, it’s the first draft brain dump. Unedited stunt writing, unexpurgated, a la Knausgård – who BTW in Book 2 of My Struggle (“A Man In Love“) is coming across as a total dick, which okay is a bravery all of its own, an honesty less glamorous than petty criminality or heroin hijinks, because let’s be honest who comes off best, the helpless addict or the father whinging about his childcare duties? So Knausgård struggles against the selflessness required to be a parent in order to pursue the erasure of self he finds in writing. Transcendence, flow, engagement… it’s all pushing up towards the point of Maslow’s pyramid. Right?

So yes, we have a baby on the way, and that was probably the impetus for this post. We’re moving, and I’m freelancing, and I still need to learn Swedish (not nearly fluent yet). And even now it’s hard enough to maintain the writing necessary to keep contributing to the Amsterdam writing group that I’m still Skyping in to. How’s having a baby going to impact that? Or will it bring regularity and order to our lives, minute-to-minute scheduling that magically *does* give me the space to write?

Naming Conventions in Dune

It was one of the customs the two sons of Jamis had explained to him by indirection telling him they wore no green because they accepted him as guardian-father. ‘Are you the Lisan al-Gaib?’ they had asked. And Paul had sensed the jihad in their words shrugged off the question with one of his own – learning then that Kaleff the elder of the two was ten and the natural son of Geoff. Orlop the younger was eight the natural son of Jamis.

– Frank Herbert, Dune

Sorry, “Geoff”? Worst – sci-fi name – ever. Sticks out like a sore thumb in that little vignette of desert blood debt adoption. “Paul” you can get on board with, especially given the name’s roots and Dune‘s Abrahamically religious themes. But GEOFF?!

Contrast A Song of Ice and Fire, where many recognisable names are given a slight twist. Geoffrey becomes Joffrey, Peter is Petyr, and Edward Eddard. That’s fine, that works. I buy that.

So, Dune, hey? Yes, world building, and yes, that’s a daring Middle East analogy for a book written in 1965. All the same: tedious/turgid, much? Oh boy.

One can write having slept badly

One of those problems – though of course one of the least important – was those very writers from the provinces, who typically visited the literary workshops of other writer from the provinces who’d arrived in the capital some time ago and who were no longer writers from the provinces, or they pretended not to be, or the writers wrote in squalid pensions or in houses they shared with friends, usually from the same provinces, and later they worked in shops or drugstores or – if they were lucky – in bookstores, almost always with ridiculous schedules that ended up impairing their ability to dedicate themselves seriously to writing and, as a result, sooner or later, the writers from the provinces ended up hating literature, which they practised dog-tired, writing in crowded buses or on the metro, since writing otherwise robbed the hours of sleep necessary to put up with their bosses and customers and the weather and the long rides on the bus or the metro, and because this always seemed to be one step further than the place where they had arrived; the writers from the provinces always gave the impression that they would achieve literature with their next story or poem, that they were at the gates of a discovery that they weren’t in a condition to realize, though, because unfortunately to write one needs to have slept at least six hours and have a full stomach and, when it’s possible, not to work at a drugstore. Further: one can write having slept badly and while feeling atrociously hungry, but never while working at a drugstore; it’s sad but true.

– Patricio Pron, A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs (from Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists

Oh, not to be a writer from the provinces! But oh, even to be that.

Picking up the pen today.

Holiday Reading: Sardinia Edition

EganGoonA 9 book/2 week holiday seems like pretty good going. Decent mix of holiday fun and overdue quality reads. I *was* aiming for 10 (with William Boyd’s Restless lined up next), but with The Luminaries (hella long) and Moby Dick (often turgid) to slog through, I was happy with this:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré
  • A Death in the Family (My Struggle #1), Karl Ove Knausgård
  • Sea and Sardinia, DH Lawrence
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt
  • Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
  • Revival, Vol. 1: You’re Among Friends, Tim Seeley with Mike Norton & Mark Englert
  • NOS4A2, Joe Hill
  • The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

And started on the plane back:

  • Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link

The lone duffer was Sea and Sardinia, in which DH Lawrence reveals himself an elitist prig, viciously stereotyping Sardinians, Sicilians, and more while at the same time bemoaning how he is stereotyped by them. Lawrence’s lack of empathy and self-awareness in this travelogue make him seem thoroughly repellent, and therefore the occasional snatches of beautiful writing ring cynically hollow.

More importantly, the gold stars go to: le Carré’s The Spy…, which is tense, absorbing, and morally disturbing; and the very funny, and equally moving, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I know I’m late to that particular party, but …Goon Squad really is a must, must, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer-just-get-on-and-do-it must-read. You know what to do.

Goldfinch, Schmoldfinch

shazamsterdam

On the opposite wall, graffiti: smiley face and arrows, Warning Radioactive, stencilled lightning bolt with the word Shazam, dripping horror movie letters, keep it nice!

The Goldfinch circles around Amsterdam. The final third of the book is set there. And the quote above was perhaps my favourite moment of that sludgy, long, and repetitious last part. Weirdly, I know the guys who painted that piece, and who used these tags all over the city (and beyond – in Barcelona, we had to stop one of them from tagging a moving street cleaning van). So reading this, I finally knew that Donna Tartt had actually spent time in Amsterdam, a fact that had been repeatedly underlined in the hype around the book.

Because something I found baffling about The Goldfinch – probably THE fiction event of 2013/14, let’s not forget – was how incredibly sloppy it was with details.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

Theo’s Amsterdam hotel is on the Singel canal, but after a trip to meet his pal Boris, the hotel has moved to Herengracht. Their drive from the airport to Singel takes in Nieuwemarkt, which is a nonsensical route: A to C via F. And before they leave for Amsterdam, Boris warns Theo to stock up on Duty Free liquor, because “booze only available in the state controlled shops”. In the Netherlands, of all places? Uh, nope. Was Tartt thinking of Sweden, maybe?

Since I lived in Amsterdam, it was in this section that they most leapt out at me, but the entire book is riddled with cheap errors. There are at least a couple of references to the drinking age in the US (New York/Nevada) being 18. How does an American author get something like that wrong? Especially when they’ve spent a decade working on the book…

This leaves me scratching my head when a reviewer praises Tartt’s “Dutch master’s attention to detail” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post). James Wood, in a New Yorker review more argued with than read (well, it is behind a paywall) famously criticised Tartt’s novel, arguing that the novel’s “tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature”. This of course spurred fans of the book to furious rebuttals.

But that’s not an axe I’m grinding. I found the prose tended towards the beautiful, the book’s pages littered with arresting images:

Floodlit window. Mortuary glow from the cold case. Beyond the fog-condensed glass, trickling with water, winged sprays of orchids quivered in the fan’s draft: ghost-white, lunar, angelic.

I agree with many commenters that the novel was overlong. Some of those digressions on the meaning, history, and techniques of art felt repetitious. But that might not have been a problem if the plot had been stronger.

This is another frequently praised aspect of The Goldfinch that leaves me wondering. Lev Grossman contends that “the narrative thread is one you just can’t gather up fast enough” (review tucked away behind another paywall).

Conversely, I felt that I was left holding a number of plot threads that weren’t connected to any moving parts. Tartt is clearly more comfortable with the rarified, moneyed Upper East Side/Hamptons scene – but nothing of consequence happens here. When a threat to Theo does emerge from amongst the expensive antiques, it eventually evaporates in a cloud of convenience.

Boris, and his Eastern European cohorts, come off hackneyed, and it is from this cartoonish demi monde that the issue of the stolen painting is “resolved”. But through much of the action, the narrator Theo is a passive bystander, dragged into set-up after set-up with little understanding. The major events in the life of the painting itself happen off-screen, and/or entirely without Theo’s understanding. The major threat to Theo’s freedom – that his possession of the missing painting may be discovered – is a faint note, tediously unwavering and never truly credible.

Honestly, I wanted to love this book. Maybe it was the hype, the reclusive enigma of la Tartt herself. Maybe it was overinflating how much I’d enjoyed The Secret History, all those years ago. Whatever it was, it didn’t deliver. I was promised a literary firecracker, and instead I had to slog through 700-plus pages of a soggy fuse failing to light, culminating in a whimpering misfire.

How to Read 52 Books Per Year

Have said before how much I love tracking apps/sites/gizmoids, like Last.fm and NaNoWriMo, for spurring that urge to get more done. Even if you’re only keeping score with yrslef, it’s a competitive urge. I know if my Nike+ stuff is ready to go, I’ll run more often than when the iPod is out of charge, or the armband thingy has been lost down the back of the drawer agin.

For the 2013 GoodReads Reading Challenge, I originally set a target of 20 books. This was revised to 25, 30, 35, 40, 47.5, and eventually 52. Thanks to a two-month sabbatical from work, and then from being unemployed for the last three months of the year, I managed to smash dent that target, and reached a total of fifty-five books read.

There are folk on G’Reads that set, and hit, targets of 70, 80, 90 books and probably more. I’ve no idea how they got that far, frankly. I was pleased enough with my just-over-half-a-ton.

The first thing to admit is that eighteen (18!) of the books were graphic novels. OK, comic books. They were booklength trade paperbacks/hardback-length collections. It has been suggested that having those in the list somehow invalidates the challenge. To which, with the greatest respect: balls it does.

Because the list also included hefty tomes such as The Corrections (653pp), Perdido Street Station (640pp), A Dance with Dragons (1,387pp), and the utterly monumental Infinite Jest (1,483pp). A little light, superheroic, image-based relief is just the fricken’ ticket after c.1.5k pages of David Foster Wallace’s chapter-length footnotes and interminable, if brilliant digressions.

As it goes, Infinite Jest absolutely floored me. That was a read that kept my brain fizzing throughout, an utterly astonishing work. It does go down better with a bit of research, whether during or after reading, but I’m the kind of nerd that digs that. Predictably-sadly it immediately started influencing my own humble scribblings. (You know the kind of book that for a while after you see yourself trying to emulate, right? Gotta watch that nonsense.)

And I thought that would be my read of the year, but right at the death I picked up Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, and BY JOVE it’s a phenomenal read. For the strength of the writing, line-by-line. For the strength of characterisation – even the smallest of supporting characters leaps off the page, vivid and true. For the plot which, if you only know the tiniest bit about Henry VIII, you know roughly where it’s beheaded. Even more astonishingly, Bring Up The Bodies is the second part in what is surely shaping up to be one of the greatest literary trilogies of all time.

So anyways, 2014? I’m aiming for 50 books. It’ll be more of a stretch, since I’m not planning on not working for five months of this year. But let’s see how it goes.