Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: Moving Mars

Greg Bear
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

Moving Mars takes place about 200 years into the settlement of Mars. Earth exploits Mars economically and most Martian settlers bridle at the exploitation. Their active resistance gradually escalates until Earth decides to crack down on them with deadly force. The Martians are backed into a corner, faced with either giving in and giving up their independence, or defending themselves with a super-powerful new technology that will have disastrous consequences for Earth and will change the lives of everyone on Mars as well.

The main character, Casseia Majumdar, is a lowly student protester at the University of Mars at the beginning of the book but eventually winds up as a powerful Martian politician faced with the burden of deciding whether or not to use their new weapon.

I originally read Moving Mars several years ago and liked it. I just read it again recently and I’m no longer so sure.

On the one hand, the story takes place on Mars, is based on a good main premise, and has a strong female protagonist.

On the other hand, Casseia often makes frustrating decisions and seems disingenuously naïve about her influence on others. The book strikes a frustrating middle ground between hard and soft SF: there is too much scientific explanation for inventions to be simply fantastical, but they are too vaguely explained to be believable. And the book introduces lots of different ideas and subplots but doesn’t explore them with any depth.

Example 1: One cool subplot that weaves in and out of the story is that Mars had sophisticated native life forms that went extinct millions of years ago. The book’s characters keep finding their fossils. But, unlike Isaac Asimov’s Nemesis, this is never directly tied into the main plot line and just sort of ends up being an interesting aside that doesn’t go anywhere.

Example 2: Mars’ economy is organized into Binding Multiples, which are not only business conglomerates but also extended families functioning as self-contained, semi-cooperative governments. Residents of Mars are deeply resistant to any attempt to form a Martian state government any more centralized than their existing BMs. But it’s not entirely clear where their passionate and sometimes violent anti-statist fervor comes from, especially when Earth will so clearly be able to crush a divided Mars, when the BMs don’t actually work so well, and when the government they do end up creating is so loosely federated. This is very different from the situation in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, where resistance to centralization makes a lot more sense.

Example 3: Another frustrating sub-plot (or co-main-plot) is Casseia’s on-again, off-again romantic history with Charles Franklin, the chief architect of the super-weapon. Their relationship is never really ended or resolved, even though both of them get married to other people at different points. Charles is drippy, willing to wait his entire life just hoping she’ll come around. And Casseia, who is an able politician and a smart person, seems to be unable to decide what to do about Charles and constantly gives him double messages. She basically only comes to grips with what she wants when it’s too late.

I should make it clear that I am a Greg Bear fan. But I like Bear best when he takes an original, unique idea – of which he has many – and explores it in a more focused way without so many false and unresolved leads. It seems like Moving Mars is trying to do the job of several different books at once and doesn’t quite succeed at any of them.

My recommendation would be that if you want a realistic hard SF story about the colonization of Mars and a deft exploration of the tension with Earth that would naturally result, read Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. If you want a mind-stretching read about enormous planetary-scale engineering projects, read Larry Niven’s Ringworld. And if you want a creepy, page-turning, fun book by Greg Bear, run right out and get Blood Music, a sort of biological version of Cat’s Cradle that, as far as I know, never won any awards.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Facial Hair of the Civil War

During the summer of 2008 I engaged in some facial hair tomfoolery, growing full-cheek sideburns connected by a mustache in an attempt to emulate Civil War general Ambrose Burnside (pictured).

The Smithsonian Institution has gathered a collection of Civil War facial hair styles, Burnside's included. Readers are invited to vote for their favorite.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review: Dance Hall of the Dead

Tony Hillerman
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

About fifteen years ago, I read three Tony Hillerman books in a row. I really liked the first, the second a little less, and, by the third, I have to admit I found them getting kind of repetitive.

I’m glad it’s been fifteen years, because reading Dance Hall of the Dead was like reading Hillerman again for the first time. Refreshed.

Hillerman’s novels are set in the Four Corners area of the U.S. where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah all meet. It’s a dusty, desert-y region home to several Indian reservations – Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma, among others. It’s also home to archaeological digs and (in the book, at least) a hippie commune.

Dance Hall was one of Hillerman’s earliest novels, and the second to use his really appealing protagonist Joe Leaphorn, a detective with the Navajo police.

Leaphorn is called in to help when a Zuni boy is found murdered and the boy’s best friend, a Navajo, goes missing. Zuni (which Hillerman spells Zuñi) and Navajo people are by no means friendly, usually, but in this case Leaphorn has to cooperate with the Zuni police and work with both Zuni and Navajo witnesses. He learns more about Zuni religion and tradition than he ever wanted to when it really starts to look like the Zuni boy was killed by a kachina – a Zuni ancestor spirit.

This book makes you very conscious of tempo. Joe Leaphorn moves at his own speed. He takes his time watching a location from far away through binoculars before going in to investigate close up. He works his way very slowly around to asking the questions at the core of his investigation. He’s very happy to let many seconds or even minutes pass in silence when he’s talking to someone.

It sometimes seems to be inefficient and slow, but he’s actually getting quite a lot figured out with this technique. So the investigation and the story progress deceptively quickly. And, towards the end, when Leaphorn gets closer and closer to solving the case, the story picks up speed quite smoothly and expertly, so where you originally felt like you were reading a kind of peaceful, slow-moving story, suddenly you find yourself rapidly turning pages and in the midst of quite a lot of suspense and Leaphorn in the midst of real physical danger.

It is really interesting to learn about Zunis through the eyes of a Navajo; partly because it means you end up learning about Navajos too. And Hillerman’s writing is calm and clear, just like his main character’s thinking. It never is self-conscious or gets in the way of the story.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A New Blog on a Grave Subject

An old professional compatriot of mine has just started a new blog, called Gravely Speaking. It’s all about “graves, gravestones, and graveyards.” Check it out y’all!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Michael Chabon
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

The reason this book is considered science fiction – and one of the reasons it probably got so much attention – is because it is set in a provocative alternate history. Aside from that, it is really a murder mystery, and not a very riveting one. And it has one major problem, which I will get into in a minute.

The main character, Meyer Landsman, is a homicide detective. He lives in the Alaskan panhandle, in the district of Sitka, which was granted to Jewish refugees on a 60-year lease following the collapse of the state of Israel shortly after World War II. Ever since they began moving in, there has been a tension between the Jewish settlers and the already-resident Alaskans, both native and white.

When the book opens, it is 2007 and the 60-year settlement lease is due to expire in two months. This means that every Jewish person living in the region will need to either get Alaskan permission to stay or will have to move elsewhere. This weighs over everyone throughout the story, especially Detective Landsman, who has done zero preparation for it.

The mystery begins when a man is found murdered in the same fleabag hotel where Landsman is living. Landsman and his partner spend the book solving the case, along the way coping with sinister and corrupt religious fanatics, asocial chess club members, and a police hierarchy that wants to sweep all outstanding homicides under the rug so they can hand over a clean slate to the incoming Alaskan regime.

Sounds good, right?

The major problem, the downfall from which there is no escape, is the writing. Chabon gets a lot of kudos from reviewers for his “smart,” “inventive,” “funny,” and “sharp” style. But I have to say I found it obnoxious.

I have broken my stylistic complaints into three categories.

Complaint One: Tense

This book is told in the present tense. I always find that hard to get used to. Why do authors do that? Is it supposed to create a special mood or sense of heightened drama?

It doesn’t help that this book is full of flashbacks which are told in the past tense. I found it jarring to be coasting along in a nice past-tense flashback and then slamming back into the disconcertingly present-tense main story line.

Complaint Two: Terms

Chabon uses a lot of slang terms for Jewish people or culture. To use a relatively tame example, the Jewish characters all use the word “yid” a lot when referring to themselves or others. I’m sure that Chabon is trying to reclaim the term, the way other minority groups have reclaimed and co-opted derogatory names for themselves. But I don’t have quite the comfort level I need to have with it to read it without cringing a bit.

Complaint Three: Painfully Forced Cleverness

The writing is amazingly, annoyingly, self-consciously clever. He particularly likes to use deliberately quirky metaphors and similes, which are everywhere.

Occasionally it sort of works…
“Scraps of newsprint, leaves, and dust get up impromptu games of dreydl in the archways of the houses.”

“His thoughts are a tattoo needle inking the spade on an ace. They are a tornado going back and forth over the same damn pancaked trailer.”

The village is “a row of steel roofs along an inlet, houses jumbled like the last ten cans of beans on a grocery shelf before the hurricane hits.”
But most of the time… not so much. If I may give you just a tiny sample.
“His teeth are like the pipes of an organ made of bones. His laugh sounds like a handful of rusty forks and nail heads clattering on the ground.”

“The knot of his gold-and-green rep necktie presses its thumb against his larynx like a scruple pressing against a guilty conscience.”

“An invisible gas clouds his thoughts, exhaust from a bus left parked with its engine running in the middle of his brain.”

“The Sitka Saturday afternoon lies dead as a failed messiah in its winding rag of snow.”

A woman’s snoring “has a double-reeded hum, the bumblebee continuo of Mongolian throat-singing. It has the slow grandeur of a whale’s respiration.”

A motorcycle sounds like “The hacking cough of an old man. A heavy wrench clanging against a cold cement floor. The flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp.”
These are often piled one after the other after the other.

The worst part is that every time I encountered one of these gems, it was so distracting that it completely stopped the flow of my reading. In addition to just marveling at its audacity, I’d often have to interpret what the heck it meant. This made it very, very hard to remember what was going on, which in turn made it almost impossible to maintain interest in the story.

If I may use my own simile, it was like riding in a car where the driver keeps randomly applying the brake and then the gas, brake and gas, brake and gas, until you want to scream.

One recurring pattern was for smells to be described in ultra-witty sets of three:
The saunas smell like “chlorine and armpit and a ripe salt vapor that might on second thought have been the pickle factory on the ground floor.”

A sofa gives off “a strong Sitka odor of mildew, cigarettes, a complicated saltiness that is part stormy sea, part sweat on the lining of a wool fedora.”

Standing on the top of his apartment building, “Landsman can smell fish offal from the canneries, grease from the fry pits at the Pearl of Manila, the spew of taxis, an intoxicating bouquet of fresh hat from Grinspoon’s Felting two blocks away.”
Whoops, that last one had four witty smells.

About 100 pages in, it started to become a game: what self-consciously odd combination is he going to come up with this time?

One thing I will give this book is that the cover of the hardcover edition is awesome. It takes key elements of the story – a Verbover’s beard and ringlets, a menorah, a gun, a chess piece – and incorporates them into a Tlingit-style design appropriate to the region.

Friday, June 03, 2011

A Word on My Book Rating System

Due to intense reader demand, I thought I would do a post explaining the star rating system I use for my book reviews. It has become apparent that this system, which is 100% my own, may not be as self-explanatory as I imagine it to be.

I assign stars to a book based on consideration of a combination of elements, including primarily (but not limited to) plot, characters, setting, originality, style, pace, and general fun-ness.

I try to judge each book as if, to paraphrase Lord John Whorfin, I had just picked the book at random off the library shelf. I don’t give it special leeway or hold it to a higher standard because I know it is an award winner. I avoid reading cover quotes extolling the author’s greatness, Wikipedia summaries, and other reviews until after I’ve read the book.

There are no half stars. Only whole stars. Below is what each of the specific ratings means.

An absolutely terrible reading experience. May be offensive, repellent, boring, confusing, trite, or any combination of the above. Not only would I not recommend this book to anyone, but I would actively un-recommend it.

★ ★
On balance, I did not enjoy this book, but it did have some redeeming characteristic(s) preventing it from sinking into the one-star pit. Maybe the characters were unappealing but it had an interesting setting. Or maybe the story was promising but the pace was so slow I got bored. I would not recommend it to others.

★ ★ ★
On balance, I liked this book. It was probably weak in some areas but made up for it in others. I might recommend it to others, but not with tremendous conviction.

★ ★ ★ ★
A really good book. It is strong in most elements but is just missing a little something somewhere to prevent it being elevated into the rarified five-star air. I would definitely recommend it to others.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A book in this category can be, if I can say it without sounding hackneyed, a life-changing experience. There can’t be any element noticeably detracting from my reading experience. This is a book I find myself reading deep into the night because I can’t put it down, babbling about to friends and co-workers, and thinking about at odd moments for months (or years) afterward. I want everybody to read it.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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