- Among Others by Jo Walton
- In Maps and Legends by Michael Jasper and Niki Smith (The Map Room)
- Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm by Aliette de Bodard
- Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
- Written in Stone by Riley Black
- Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit (The Map Room)
- Dancing with Bears by Michael Swanwick
- Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
- OpenStreetMap by Frederik Ramm, Jochen Topf and Steve Chilton (The Map Room)
- Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
- Engineering Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan
- The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
- When the Great Days Come by Gardner Dozois
- Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Venomous Snakes by Lenny Flank
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
- Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography by William Butcher
- Lifelode by Jo Walton
- 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
- Master of the House of Darts by Aliette de Bodard
- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
- Maphead by Ken Jennings (The Map Room)
- Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon by Derek Hayes (The Map Room)
- Personal Geographies by Jill K. Berry (The Map Room)
Today was the official publication date of Jo Walton’s new novel, Among Others. It’s a fantastic book, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It’s about fairies, and magic — and growing up reading science fiction and fantasy. That sounds like a dissonant combination, but oh does it ever work.
I managed to lay hands on an advance bound manuscript because Jennifer and I actually met Jo Walton at SFContario last November. In the dealers’ room on day one of the convention, Jennifer managed to sing the praises of one of Walton’s earlier novels, Tooth and Claw (which is the kind of novel Anthony Trollope would have written, if Trollope wrote about dragons), without realizing that Jo herself was sitting right in front of her. (That’s got to be a satisfying thing to happen to an author.) By the end of the convention Jo was offering to sell us all her other books for a low price and to sign them all for Jen as well. That included the advance bound manuscript for Among Others. Looking at the cover blurb, I said, “This sounds really neat.”
I had no idea just how good it was going to be.
On the surface, Among Others is a series of journal entries over a six-month period by the protagonist, 15-year-old Welsh teenager Mori, as she starts her first year at a private boarding school. But from the first it is abundantly clear that Something Is Not Right—Mori has run away from her mother, she walks with a cane, and her twin sister, whom we see in the prologue, is referred to only in the past tense—but what that Something is comes in dribs and drabs, among the day-to-day minutiae of meeting her father’s family and dealing with classmates and schoolwork at her English (horror!) school. Also, there are fairies, who have plans for her; and she can do magic, but is afraid to do so for fear of attracting the attention of her mother, who sounds like some kind of sorceress. What the fairies’ plans are, what her mother did to cause her to flee, what happened to her sister, how she got crippled—these are all revealed in the end, but for most of the book it’s in the background, as Mori tries to put her life back together, in a new setting, surrounded by new people, after a terrible trauma.
At the same time, Mori spends an awful lot of the novel talking about science fiction. She consumes novels like candy; her journal entries are full of her reactions to virtually every science fiction novel and collection published by the 1970s. Her writing is peppered with references to Tolkien and Le Guin; she even calls one of the fairies Glorfindel. Among Others is set in 1979 and 1980, so Mori reads The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or early work by C. J. Cherryh not as classics but as new work.
What is remarkable is not only how Walton evokes the capacity of fiction to preserve wonder and hope in a dispiriting world, but how she conveys this, as with the Hardy comment, in the opinionated but not quite fully-formed voice of a teenager discovering these works at the tail-end of the 1970s, which comes across as a kind of Golden Age of SF in Mori’s narrative, with Tolkien already established as canonical, Heinlein just entering his cranky late phase, and Le Guin, Zelazny, and Tiptree, along with the historical novels of Mary Renault, coming as astonishing revelations to a young British reader.
It’s hard, in fact, not to think of Jo’s many blog entries about books at Tor.com: there is clearly a lot of Jo in Mori, and Mori in Jo. Among Others is at least partially autobiographical, and while Jo and Mori are both Welsh and the same age, both read voraciously and fast and both walk with a cane, it would be dangerous to assume that Jo got into any magical duels as a child, or can show me where the fairies are. (Alas.)
This is a fairy tale, and it’s a novel about reading science fiction. But as the title suggests, with its double meaning, it’s also a novel about being an outsider. Sherwood Smith has a lot to say about the repeated presence of liminality in Among Others: a Welsh girl in an English school, a practitioner of magic who can see fairies in a mundane world, leaving her mother’s family and getting acquainted with her father’s.
Being an outsider, of course, is also something that most science fiction fans can relate to. Growing up reading science fiction means living somewhere else — in Middle-earth or Xanth, on Pern or Terminus or Mars. It can be a lonely life if there’s no one around who gets you. Sure, a couple of my classmates read Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey in junior high, but finding someone who could get the obscure Tolkien references—by high school I was writing notes to myself using the Tengwar—was an impossible task, to say nothing of finding anyone else who read Asimov or Niven. Indeed, like Mori, my main source of science fiction was my father; like Mori, I’m a second-generation science fiction reader. But unlike Mori, I couldn’t cast a spell to find, as she eventually does, a circle of people like her: a science fiction reading group.
(Indeed, though Jen and I met because of our mutual interest in snakes, what truly sealed the deal, I think, was our mutual interest in science fiction: she saw my library. And it was only last year—at the tender age of 38—that I started attending science fiction conventions for the first time. I’ve long felt out of place in virtually every social and work context, a square peg always finding round holes; it may only be in science fiction fandom that I can find a karass, to use the Vonnegut term Walton borrows, of my own.)
I am not Welsh or female, I do not walk with a cane, and I do not have a dead sibling or a parent who wants me dead. I never attended a boarding school, my family is far-flung and American, and I have never (to the best of my knowledge) conversed with fairies. And yet to a startling extent Among Others feels like a book about the experience of being me when I was, like Mori, fifteen. This turns out to be a fairly common reaction to reading Walton’s novel, at least among the kind of people I tend to know. It is quite possibly the best thing I have ever read about the way people of our ilk, when young, use books and reading to—in the words of Robert Charles Wilson—“light the way out of a difficult childhood.”
If you grew up reading science fiction and fantasy like I did, you will resonate like a tuning fork when you read this. You have to read this. I’m not kidding. If you don’t believe me,
read this excerpt. If that’s not enough to make you run out and buy it, I don’t know what to do with you. It’s so good, if it doesn’t make next year’s Hugo and Nebula ballots, I will be most put out.
[Of course, it went on to win both awards.]
Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm
I’ve just finished reading Aliette de Bodard’s very interesting Obsidian and Blood series of novels, two of which are out so far: Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm. These are murder mystery novels set in 15th-century Tenochtitlan, and honestly that would have been enough, but these are also fantasy novels—this is an Aztec empire where the Aztec religion is real and present, and blood sacrifices are necessary to keep the sun in the sky and ensure the survival of life on earth.
The novels’ unlikely hero is Acatl, the high priest of Mictlantecuhtli, god of the underworld. The murders he is called upon to investigate turn out to be weighted with personal import, political intrigue—which Acatl has no interest in—and the fate of the entire Aztec universe. Spells and sacrifices are the tools of his investigations, and he’s as likely to interview a god as he is a guard — indeed, his interactions with the gods seem almost too casual, too matter-of-fact. Characterization and description are thin here, as you might expect in a crime novel, but the explorations of Aztec cosmology and society, as well as the convoluted plotting and scheming, make these engaging, readable books very much worth your time. (The Kindle versions [from the original publisher] could have been better formatted, though.) I’m looking forward to more.
Ostensibly a retelling of “The Death of Koschei the Deathless,” but drawing, I think, on other Russian fairy tales, Valente’s story is a tale well-woven, with the warp and weft of history and mythology seamelessly woven together into a tapestry that is both funny and wise, and with just the right storytelling rhythms. Deathless brings domoviye and rusalky into the Soviet era; Marya Morevna is taken from “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” and made not the prize but the heroine (and Ivan not the hero but the prize). She lives in Revolution-era Leningrad, where her family shares a house with 11 other families, before Koschei, the Tsar of Death, sweeps her away to Buyan. Marya must survive both Baba Yaga and the Siege of Leningrad; the fairy pantheon is also changed by the Russian Revolution.
As a synthesis of the fairy and the modern it rings true, comparing very favourably to Spirited Away and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, but with greater depth, power, and mythic truth—and I love the fact that Slavic mythology, which I knew so little about, is its source material. Highly recommended.
Written in Stone
Note: The science writer Riley Black published this book under her previous name. This review appears as it was first posted.
Brian Switek’s Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature talks about the fossil record and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. That’s not as straightforward a subject as you might think: while the discovery of fossils of so-called transitional forms—Archeopteryx comes to mind—did much to fill in one readily admitted gap in Darwin’s theory, paleontologists weren’t always on-side with Darwin. Sure, they believed in evolution, but not necessarily that natural selection was the process; no few believed that evolution proceeded in a linear fashion, teleologically, from lesser to greater forms. Which is not what Darwinism is about. What the fossil record shows is not a linear progression, but a messy tree of life that is pruned as ecological niches disappear (at one point, for example, there were more than a dozen different kinds of horse in North America, with different kinds of horses adapted to different environments).
Switek builds his case chapter by chapter, looking at the fossil evolutionary record of everything from amphibians, mammals and birds to, more specifically, horses, whales, elephants and hominids. (It’s not, in other words, just a dinosaur book.) As a synthesis it’s an impressive virtuoso performance, wide-ranging without sacrificing depth. But I wonder whether it might not be too technical for beginners: I think I have enough amateur grounding in the language of taxonomy and cladistics not to have been bewildered by the book, but, you know, the clades do come fast and furious.
Switek has announced his next book, A Date with a Dinosaur, which will contrast dinosaurs in the popular imagination with the latest research. His article in today’s Wall Street Journal gives some indication of how he’ll deal with that subject.
[That next book was eventually published as My Beloved Brontosaurus.]
Dancing with Bears
Michael Swanwick is one of my favourite science fiction writers, so when he publishes a new novel it’s a major event around here. His latest, Dancing with Bears, is only his eighth in a thirty-year career. It marks the return of con men Darger and Surplus, who previously appeared in three terribly entertaining short stories: “The Dog Said Bow-Wow” (2001), which won the Hugo; “The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport” (2002); and “Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play” (2005)—all of which can be found in his 2007 collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow. (Please tell me there aren’t more stories out there that I’ve missed. I may weep.)
Darger and Surplus are swindlers; they move through post-utopian polite society trying to pull a fast one on the aristocracy. Whether they succeed or fail, the results are usually comic, sometimes tragic, but unquestionably epic.
They inhabit a world that has lost both electronics and internal combustion engines; genetic engineering is everywhere—Surplus, for example, is an intelligent and bipedal dog, and there are non-human and human examples of genetic engineering throughout the book—but travel is powered by sail and beast; meanwhile, artificial intelligences bent on genocide lurk everywhere beneath the surface, and must be kept carefully at bay. This is a world both strange and mad, and our protagonists unleash mayhem upon it, quite by accident.
When we last saw Darger and Surplus, they were making their way to Byzantium; as Dancing with Bears opens, they’re on the other side of it and en route to Moscow, having managed to attach themselves to a delegation bringing a gift from the Caliph to the Duke of Muscovy. As so often happens when Darger and Surplus are on the scene, complications ensue—they stumble across schemes and deceits and plots to overthrow the Duke—with inevitably destructive and hilarious results that, as always, never seem to faze them.
The translation from short story to novel is not without a few bumps; the additional length requires additional viewpoint characters who are not nearly as enjoyable as Darger and Surplus. The tone is also a little less light than it was in the short stories; Russia, it seems, does not make for breezy comedy. But by no means is the book a downer. It has lots of good lines to chuckle over, to say nothing of the Russian equivalents of technology-derived surnames from the stories—Gulagsky, Pepsicolova, Lukoil-Gazproma, Sputnikovitch. Swanwick’s mischievous streak is on full display here; Dancing with Bears is quite simply magnificent fun, a tautly plotted caper of considerable energy that is as engaging as a thriller.
South African writer Lauren Beukes’s second novel, Zoo City, won this year’s Clarke Award. It layers the concept of animal familiars atop a gritty Africa, but these aren’t Philip Pullman’s familiars: only people who have committed crimes have an animal familiar, and as a result find themselves shunned and discriminated against. The Zoo Plague, or “acquired aposymbiotic familiarism,” is a powerful metaphor for stigmatization of all kinds. In Zoo City, former journalist and 419 scammer Zinzi December, who acquired a supernatural ability to find lost things along with her sloth, is hired to find a missing singer, and very quickly gets in over her head. There’s a lot going on at once, and it doesn’t always cohere, but it’s a thoroughly impressive work of urban fantasy.
Fuzzy Nation is John Scalzi’s reboot of H. Beam Piper’s 1962 classic novel, Little Fuzzy, published with the consent of the Piper estate. This is a reboot in the sense of Batman Begins or the J. J. Abrams Star Trek: not a sequel or a rewrite, but a different story written from the bare bones of the original. Little Fuzzy and Fuzzy Nation superficially tell the same tale: sunstone prospector Jack Holloway encounters a small and unbearably cute race of creatures he calles the fuzzies (or, in Scalzi’s version, the fuzzys, which seems wrong); if the fuzzies are found to be sentient, a human corporation loses the right to exploit their planet.
It’s remarkable how different the two novels are beyond that point. Reading one does not spoil the reading of the other. (In any case you must track down Little Fuzzy, which is in the public domain and downloadable for free, so there’s no excuse.)
Scalzi replaces Piper’s Holloway, a well-loved septuagenerian, with a younger, more selfish version who’s, well, a bit of a dick. Where Piper focused on a discussion of what constitutes sentience, Scalzi looks more broadly — and less naively — at the excesses of corporate power. Where Piper made the fuzzies, and the observation thereof, the centre of the book, they’re much more in the background in Scalzi’s version, lost among the hugger-mugger between the human characters and practically upstaged by Holloway’s dog (whose affectionate rendering by Scalzi damn near steals the book). There’s an urgency and a tension that wasn’t in the original: the constraints on corporate power in Little Fuzzy are nowhere to be seen in Fuzzy Nation; ZaraCorp plays for keeps in Scalzi’s version. Where Piper was idealistic, Scalzi is cynical.
There’s a certain amount of fuck-yeah fist-pumping at the denouement, and there are plenty of guns on plenty of mantlepieces scattered throughout, but these sorts of things don’t detract from the fact that, with the taut plot and snappy dialogue that are practically Scalzi trademarks, Fuzzy Nation is a tremendously enjoyable piece of entertainment. One of the flufflier — or should I say ghlaghghier — novels Scalzi has written (complete with bacon fanservice!), it’s definitely more in the vein of Agent to the Stars or The Android’s Dream than his Old Man’s War series. That’s not meant to damn with faint praise: Scalzi is emerging as quite possibly the best humourist working in science fiction today.
Gardner Dozois called Engineering Infinity, an anthology of original science fiction stories edited by Jonathan Strahan, “the best SF anthology of the year to date” in the April 2011 issue of Locus. It’s a strong anthology with some really good stories in it. Ostensibly a hard-SF anthology, its stories range in scope from the intensely personal to the grandly Stapledonian, but in most cases retain a human perspective, if not scale. Here’s the table of contents.
It’s hard to pick a favourite. John Barnes seems to be channeling Larry Niven’s stage trees in “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees,” and that’s not a bad thing. Two stories are sequels: Karl Schroeder’s “Laika’s Ghost,” a story about the Soviet Union and Mars, is the fifth, I think, in a series involving arms inspector Gennady Malianov (beginning with “The Dragons of Pripyat”); Charlie Stross’s “Bit Rot” is a sequel to Saturn’s Children. I also enjoyed Greg Benford’s time-travel-and-serial-killers tale, “Mercies”; Gwyneth Jones’s story about alien cannibalism, “The Ki-Anna”; Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s bittersweet “Watching the Music Dance.” And Peter Watts is in his usual fine form with “Malak,” a story about a weapon that grows a conscience.
The Dervish House
First up in my reading of the 2010 Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel is The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. This is the first novel of his that I’ve read, though he’s written more than a dozen of them. That’s a shame, and something I’m going to have to rectify shortly, because The Dervish House is a masterful, beautifully written book that thoroughly deserves its Hugo nomination.
Set in a near-future Istanbul, a few years after Turkey joined the EU, the novel whirls around the inhabitants of the so-called dervish house (a square in an Istanbul neighbourhood). Over the course of a week, it shifts between six point-of-view characters and multiple storylines—a terror attack on a tram, a scheme involving a gas pipeline, the search for a man entombed in honey, among others, all within the context of a world thoroughly infused with nanotech. It’s a little hard to follow in the beginning, but the seemingly disparate threads do come together, and make for a satisfying conclusion. And the characters—a motley collection that includes a retired Greek economics professor, a nine-year-old boy with pet robots and a heart condition, and a man who thinks he sees djinni—are wonderful and lively. This is an impressive piece of science fiction on so many levels.
Note: the Kindle version uses images to render the Turkish letters “Ğ” and “Ş”—with ugly results.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin is the second book in my reading of the 2010 Hugo Award nominees for best novel. It’s a fantasy novel, the first book in a trilogy, but it’s not your standard fantasy—it went in directions I did not expect. Nor, though it features a female protagonist who has relationships with supernatural beings (gods, in this case), is it anything like a paranormal romance. It’s something quite different, and quite original.
The Arameri are a family who rule the world from their city of Sky, where they serve their god, Itempas. In a war between the gods thousands of years ago, Itempas banished or killed the other gods, who now serve as slaves to the Arameri. Yeine, the granddaughter of the head of the Arameri, is summoned to Sky on the death of her mother, who was estranged from her family, only to discover that she has been named one of her grandfather’s three heirs. This puts her in considerable peril, and she must navigate palace intrigues, family politics, and captured gods in order to survive.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a pleasant surprise: a novel so fluidly written, so gripping, with world-building and mythology that are first-rate. It’s hard to believe it’s a first novel—in fact, it just won the 2011 Locus Award for best first novel. It was a Nebula nominee too, and now it’s a strong contender for the Hugo. You should probably read it.
When the Great Days Come
At Readercon (more on which anon) I discovered, to my delight, that a new collection of short stories by Gardner Dozois, one of the convention’s guests of honour, had just been published. When the Great Days Come (Prime Books, 2011) collects most of Dozois’s significant short fiction over his 40-year career.
Now, Dozois is best known as an editor. He edited Asimov’s Science Fiction between 1987 and 2004, and continues to edit the Year’s Best Science Fiction series of anthologies. He’s won 15 Hugos for his editing. But his friend (and frequent collaborator) Michael Swanwick likes to point out that Dozois is a better writer than an editor. Though not a prolific one, especially during the years he edited Asimov’s, what stories he has published—I count 56 of them in the shorter lengths1—are beautifully crafted and are often filled with a terrible purpose. (The world comes to an end on more than one occasion.) He’s won Nebulas for two of them—“The Peacemaker” and the heartrending “Morning Child,” both of which are reprinted in this book—but none of his stories are a waste of reading time. (An argument could be made against “A Cat Horror Story,” but that one is still fun.)
Of the 18 stories in When the Great Days Come, all but three have appeared in previous collections. Those three are “When the Great Days Came,” a disaster story from the point of view of a rat; “Counterfactual,” a brilliant alternate history story of an implacable Confederacy; and “Recidivist,” which reminds me of some of the themes of his early work (its protagonist curiously shares a name with the protagonist of “Solace,” also reprinted here).
The other 15 stories have been reprinted in earlier collections, sometimes more than once, but this is not a problem for most of you, because you’re not going to be able to find his earlier collections, which are long out of print and hard to find used. The Visible Man (Berkeley, 1977) was his first collection; Slow Dancing Through Time (Ursus/Ziesing, 1990) collected his collaborations with other writers to that point. Subsequent collections tended to collect the important stories from previous volumes, making each a sort of best-of volume that added the most recent work: this was the case with Geodesic Dreams (St. Martin’s Press, 1992), Strange Days (NESFA Press, 2001—hey, it’s still available new! BUY IT!) and Morning Child and Other Stories (ibooks, 2004), and it’s the case with When the Great Days Come as well. For some of the really good stories, this is their third or fourth appearance in a Dozois collection, but that’s a small price to pay to get something with the power of “A Special Kind of Morning”—a story regularly cited for the quality of its prose, published when Dozois was in his early twenties—back in front of readers.
Only one collaboration, “Ancestral Voices” with Michael Swanwick, is included, making Slow Dancing Through Time the only other collection with no overlap with this one (if you can find that one, grab it too: it’s a gem). I’m also perplexed that the mighty 1995 novella, “The City of God,” also co-written with Swanwick, remains uncollected, here or in any other Dozois collection. Otherwise, almost everything Dozois has written in the last 20 years is included here (as I said: not prolific) along with some of the strongest stories of the first half of his career.
Which is to say that you should grab this book—it’s only five bucks for the Kindle edition, and the trade paperback and hardcover editions are reasonably priced as well — and see what his writing’s all about.
Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Venomous Snakes
In his Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Venomous Snakes, Lenny Flank, Jr. speaks truth to crazy.
Providing information on how to keep venomous snakes in captivity—by definition, an extremely dangerous and life-threatening activity—is a contentious thing. Even among those crazy few who think that keeping venomous snakes should be legal, even among those who keep such snakes themselves, there is a line of thought that says, don’t tell anyone how it’s done. Because you might encourage the wrong people to do it. They’ll read your book or website, buy a bunch of deadly snakes, and get themselves—or worse, some innocent bystander—killed.
Lenny Flank, on the other hand, takes the other view: that providing good, practical information gives young and stupid snake keepers a cold, hard reality check: this is what you’re in for, this is what you have to do. If the result dissuades people from buying a venomous snake, well, so much the better. If not, well—Flank points out that you can’t learn venomous snake keeping from a book anyway, not safely anyway (inasmuch as anything about this sort of thing can be called “safe”) and that venomous snake keepers need to learn directly from a mentor.
Mentorship is how the “old guard” of hot snake keepers trained new keepers; it’s also how they controlled the supply of venomous snakes. That control over supply, however, is long since gone—any idiot can buy a snake of incredible deadliness. If the snakes are out there for all to see, then the information should be too.
There once was a website that covered all of this material, maintained by an acquaintance of mine, but it went offline years ago. I found it fascinating, not because I had any desire to keep venomous snakes, but because the procedures themselves were fascinating in a voyeuristic sense. Flank, one of the better writers of herpetocultural books, covers these procedures in this slim (and not very professionally produced; probably self-published) volume. The care of venomous snakes differs from non-venomous snake care in three basic ways: housing (everything must be escape proof), handling (under no circumstances should you ever have to physically touch the snake), and what to do when—not if—something goes wrong. Flank’s advice seems sound, from what I can remember about the subject. And his entertaining chapter classifying venomous snakes into six temperamental types—from “ankle biters” to “mad dogs”—seems straight out of Newt Scamander.
But his most important piece of advice is not to get into this mad nonsense in the first place—and that’s something with which I wholeheartedly agree.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt was a fucking space alien. He had to have been. That’s the only conclusion I can draw having read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the engaging, readable and addictive first volume of Edmund Morris’s three-book biography of America’s youngest and funnest president. It covers the period from his birth to his ascension to the presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley.
Despite a fairly sickly childhood, the man had more energy than a whole platoon and produced more intellectual output, in more diverse fields, than some small colleges. He was a walking Tesla coil: you could power a small city with him. He bounced from task to task: state assemblyman, rancher, federal civil service commissioner, New York City Police commissioner, assistant navy secretary, rough rider, governor, vice president—rarely staying for more than a few years.
With a book that is 960 pages long in hardcover (I read the Kindle edition) it’s hard to complain about the gaps in the narrative—his family fades into the background as his career takes off, for example. Roosevelt led a life so full and interesting, I can see why it’s taken Morris three volumes to chronicle it. Worth reading.
Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography
I picked up a used copy of William Butcher’s biography of Jules Verne, helpfully titled Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography, to help me in my travels through Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages. There is a lot of interest here, about Verne’s childhood, politics, struggles as a playwright, passion for sea travel and so forth. But if you’re expecting an exegesis of Verne’s novels, well, you’re not going to get that: some titles fly by with the briefest of mentions.
Which is not to say that this book ignores the literary: Butcher, who’s done several new translations of Verne’s works (and has fulminated against many existing translations), explores Verne’s writing career in considerable detail, especially his relationship with Hetzel, his publisher. We learn that Hetzel edited anything the least bit controversial from Verne’s works; one result was that none of the works published in Verne’s lifetime is actually set in France. Butcher’s anger at this and at Hetzel’s financial exploitation of Verne is palpable and unrestrained; this is not a disinterested biography. Butcher also argues provocatively that a number of Verne’s works were written by others or were outright plagiarisms, and that Verne should not be seen as a science fiction writer, but rather a writer of geographical adventure fiction.
Less appealing to me was the focus on psychosexual matters and Butcher’s tendency to emphasize that a point of research was exclusive to his book, which to this lapsed historian seems aggressive and unseemly. In the end, a useful read, if not exactly a gripping one.
On Friday we’re off to Montreal for Farthing Party, Jo Walton’s mini-convention. In preparation for which I’ve been madly reading books by other participants and by Jo herself, so as to feel properly up to speed.
One I recently finished is Walton’s Lifelode, which won the Mythopoeic Award in 2010. It’s an odd and interesting book. It’s what might be called domestic fantasy, says Sharyn November in the introduction, and at least it starts that way, but Story inevitably manifests itself. “What I was trying to do was write a small scale story about everyday life in a high magic medieval village,” Jo wrote on her LiveJournal in 2008. “What actually happened was that Hanethe came back from the East and took over the plot, because she had the plot nature, and nobody else did.”
In Lifelode’s world, time and magic work differently in different places: the further east you go, the more powerful magic (or “yeya”) gets, and the slower time passes. Hanethe returns (or rather escapes) from the east to find that generations have passed in the meantime. But Lifelode isn’t just about Hanethe; it’s about Jankin, a libidnous scholar from the west, and the polyamorous manor house upon which they descend—and what happens to all of them when a vengeful god from the east wants Hanethe back.
Written in the present tense, with relative past tenses collapsed into the present because a major viewpoint character sees the past, present and future at once, Lifelode’s prose is both evocative and affective. And its characters are vivid and wonderful. Reading this book was a delight. My only quibble is that Hanethe’s plot takeover required an ending that resolved Hanethe’s story, and while the ending works, it’s not as satisfying as the rest of the book.
Published by NESFA Press as a limited-edition hardcover, Lifelode isn’t widely available, though it’s being reprinted. It’s worth tracking down a copy.
Columbus triggered the Little Ice Age. Malaria invented African slavery in the Americas, set the position of the Mason-Dixon line and helped the colonies win the American War of Independence. Silver from the New World wreaked havoc on the Chinese monetary system. Potatoes allowed Europe to take over the world.
These are some of the provocative gems found in Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. It’s a sequel of sorts to 1491, a book on the Americas before their discovery by Europeans that impressed the hell out of me. It’s essentially a popular history of the Columbian Exchange—where peoples, species, and goods previously separated by geography came together in a new period some have dubbed the Homogocene—where, for example, Africans outnumbered Europeans in the Caribbean and a substantial population of Asians lived in 16th-century Mexico, and crops like tobacco, sugar, rubber, potatoes and maize expanded across the world. Globalization, Mann argues, is not a new thing: the global economy can be traced to post-conquest Mexico, where Andean silver not only crossed the Atlantic to Spain, but also the Pacific to the Philippines, where Spain traded it for Chinese silk and porcelain. The world knit itself together on the bounty of the Americas.
It’s by necessity an incomplete look. The Atlantic triangle gets short shrift, and cod is not once mentioned. A comprehensive survey of the Exchange would have to be textbook-superficial, or come in twenty volumes. Mann takes one thing at a time—rubber or sugar or malaria, or racial mixing, or escaped slave colonies like the black Seminoles—and goes into considerable depth. Neither is this a history of the period immediately after contact: the conquistadors share time with modern-day rubber plantations in Indochina. What 1493 is, like 1491 before it, is an immensely stimulating and accessible read, hard to put down, provocative of much thought. Go read it.
Master of the House of Darts
Master of the House of Darts is the third and final book in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec mystery fantasy novels. We rejoin Acatl, High Priest of the Dead and sometime investigator of magical murder and intrigue, some four months after the events of Harbinger of the Storm. The Mexica emperor, Tizoc, has returned from his coronation war with too few prisoners to offer up as sacrifice, and Acatl is again worried that the balance between the heavens, the earth and the underworld is at risk. (The world of Obsidian and Blood seems to be on the constant edge of a Mesoamerican Ragnarök.) When a plague strikes the Sacred Precinct and threatens to spread across Tenochtitlan, Acatl is once again called upon to save the day.
Selfless, utterly sincere and a bit colourless, Acatl is in stark (and necessary) contrast to a cast of self-interested and scheming priests, warriors and politicians, and a vividly painted society in which blood sacrifices are necessary to keep the sun in the sky and ensure the survival of life on earth, and the gods are neither imaginary nor distant. As enjoyable as the first two books—which is to say, yes, read them.
Steve Jobs was no Santa Claus.
I didn’t need Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the late Apple CEO, simply titled Steve Jobs, to tell me that. I was already well aware of Jobs’s many character flaws: his abandonment of his first daughter, Lisa; his lack of empathy; his unpleasant behaviour to virtually everyone around him; his odd dietary habits and other quirks. All of these traits were already catalogued in excruciating detail in Alan Deutschman’s 2001 biography, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, which catalogued, in vivid detail, the period between Jobs’s ouster from Apple in 1985 and the first few years of his return.
Isaacson covers Jobs’s entire life, with Jobs’s cooperation and participation. While he is thoroughly admiring of his subject, he is not blind to Jobs’s faults, nor does he shy away from them. While Deutschman’s Second Coming reads like a laundry list of everything Steve had done to everyone he had ever been mean to, Isaacson provides the context: why, in other words, Steve felt he had to be an asshole. This book was written with Jobs’s cooperation and participation; one gets the sense that Steve saw this as an opportunity to get his side of the story out. But Isaacson doesn’t necessarily let him get away with his shit either.
That said, this is very much the story Jobs wants told. The main themes of this biography, which frame Isaacson’s narrative no matter what Apple, NeXT or Pixar product is being discussed, are Jobs’s perfectionism and synthesis: his unwillingness to accept crap and his desire to fuse computer technology with the arts and humanities—to give technology a human face. It’s as much about the achievements as about the man, more a study in business accomplishments than in psychology.
Tech geeks have never thought much of Jobs, largely because he wasn’t an engineer and couldn’t write code. All they saw was the salesmanship, the apparent triumph of style over substance. Behind the scenes, though, he was a perfectionist who obsessed about the user experience. Much of his assholery was in the service of pushing engineers who would otherwise be content with good enough so as to make their lives a little easier. He was prepared to be brutal in the service of insanely great. His cruelty was calculated. I could never have worked for him, but I have no trouble buying his products.
Because Isaacson covers Jobs’s entire life, many things are dealt with briefly. The iPad and the App Store take up only a single chapter, for example, where they could have been an entire book. It’s a testament to just how much Jobs accomplished that a book of more than 600 pages could seem so insufficient. Even so, as a Jobs-watcher for more than a decade, I still found plenty that I did not already know. If you’re interested in Steve Jobs or Apple you’ll almost certainly want to read this, but in that case you’ve probably already bought it.
- As for novel-length fiction, he published one solo novel, Strangers, in 1978, as well as a collaboration with George Alec Effinger, Nightmare Blue, in 1977—both now out of print, neither of which I’ve seen. [I have now.] More recently, he teamed up with George R. R. Martin and Daniel Abraham for Hunter’s Run (2008), an expansion of the novella Shadow Twin (2005).