Catching Up: Books Read, April-May 2012
A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. So that was interesting. This takes place in the same universe as A Fire Upon the Deep, but much earlier and much, well, deeper. Fire takes place largely in the Beyond and the Transcend, where AI and faster-than-light travel and serious life extension are all possible, and is all about the boundaries between those two zones, and between them and the Slow Zone. Deepness takes place entirely in the Slow Zone, and no one in it knows there's anything else, and all those technologies are "failed dreams." Empires rise and reach their limits and collapse catastrophically and rise again, and most technological discovery comes from archaeology on things that have been discovered, and lost, a million times before. Pham Nuwen has a brilliant, epic idea that makes this whole process a tiny bit easier... and he would be at risk of being a Mary Sue, except that in Fire, no one has even heard of his culture, which hasn't made a dent into their zone, or their time. I don't think anyone currently writing does deep time, or deep space, better than Vinge.
None of which is actually about the plot, or the way that this book extends the worldbuilding from Fire, all of which are brilliant. Or about the frustrating thing where every single female character is at some point made helpless in order to manipulate a male character, which is not brilliant. Recommended overall, but watch out for little sprinkles of pixie dust from the sexism fairy.
The Hunger Games, by Susan Collins. I was the last person on earth to read this book. I will also be the last person on earth to read the other two--I want to very much, but need to wait for a time when I have lots of sanity points to spend. Brilliant, but depressing. I spent every night that I was in the middle of this book having nightmares about sleeping in a tree, keeping alert for attackers and trying to avoid falling. And there are still a couple of images that come into my head at odd moments, and then I have to breathe slowly for a while. Recommended, with the caveat of many, many trigger warnings.
I have a theory to explain the worldbuilding problems, based on the idea that the Capital is actually transitioning to supporting their lifestyle through advanced nanotech, and most of what we see in the districts is busywork, but S tells me it gets jossed in the later books.
In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent. This is a slightly breezy history of conlangs. I found it fascinating, and also annoying. Fascinating because I am a language geek, and think that conlangs are an underappreciated art form. This book gets into some detail about how conlangs have and haven't worked, and how their goals have changed over the centuries. Annoying, because Okrent just cannot get past comparing her precious normal self to all these weird people. I think the only conlang creator she's nice about is Suzette Hayden Elgin, although Marc Okrand comes close (and klingonguy, who makes a cameo). But she does this constant thing of ogling those weirdos over there. Some of the people who've created conlangs were kind of dubious, but really? And all this is from a linguist. Someone who, at minimum, hangs out regularly with people who find phonemes interesting. (If you were curious, phonemes are why I'm a language geek rather than a linguist.) I'm all in favor of people geeking out about pretty much every little specialty you can imagine, but I really don't appreciate them lording it over other geeks about how un-weird they are.
Well, that was a rant. For the most part, I actually did like this. I just kind of wanted to slap Okrent about once every chapter or two.
Blood Engines and Poison Sleep, by T.A. Pratt. First and second books in the brilliant Marla Mason series. This is urban fantasy that does almost nothing that one expects in an urban fantasy, except for have a lot of snark. There is no werewolf boyfriend. For the most part, there is no boyfriend at all. Marla is rude and ruthless, and the fact that she has a real (if very pragmatic) moral core isn't entirely apparent until Book 2. I described her to S as your typical plucky-brittle-sarcastic urban fantasy character--after she's had around 15 years to grow up and get handed some real responsibility.
I started out thinking of these as relatively light, funny reads. They remain funny, but they are also full of emotional gut punches, and the costs and stakes go up as the series progresses. Pratt has the trick of making you laugh during the gut punch, sometimes at things you really shouldn't laugh at. Also of creating characters who can both have crowning moments of awesome, and make world-shakingly terrible mistakes, sometimes at the same time. Highly, highly recommended.
Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi. Reread to catch my breath, and restore my faith in humanity, while I waited for Poison Sleep to arrive.
Grail, by Elizabeth Bear. Third book in the Jacob's Ladder series, in which we get to see what the rest of humanity has been doing while the ship was stuck between stars. The meeting is basically a first contact, as the two sides have made themselves psychologically and physically alien to each other.
There's an old Spider Robinson story called "Antinomy," and it's an incredibly stupid story that tries to illustrate the titular word with an absolutely pedestrian love triangle. I think of it every time I encounter a really good example of antinomy in a story. Grail has it in spades. You can absolutely see why the Jacobites want and need a place to settle down, and you can absolutely see why the Fortunites don't want Ariane Conn and her ilk living in their solar system. I don't entirely buy the eventual resolution of this conflict, but otherwise love the book.
The Fortunites do something called rightminding--a suite of genetic engineering, neurosurgery, and neurochemical tweaks that essentially allow people to overcome irrationality and cognitive bias. Bear manages to make this almost-but-not-entirely not squicky--and occasionally a little tempting while wandering through DC. Given their technological advances and the way it doesn't work perfectly and needs regular adjusting, I am actually willing to buy this on a cognitive level.
Other Media Consumed
Oceana (Oswaldo Golijof): Golijof is a modern composer who happily mixes dozens of musical traditions to come up with something beautiful and syncretic. I don't love this quite as much as his mass, but it's still pretty awesome.
In the Time of the Gods (Dar Williams). This is a theme album, built off of modern interpretations of Greek gods. Many of the songs are brilliant--I particularly like "Summer Child" (the Kore/Persephone song), which is about watching your child grow and learn, and the ways that it's beautiful and terrifying at the same time. My favorite of hers since The Green World, which I guess proves that I really like Dar Williams doing religious stuff.
Criminals Minds (Season 6, episodes 3-4). One disappointing, with all the characters feeling just a little off. The other doing brilliant things with Penelope trying to replace JJ, and showing off her own strengths. (And pointedly showing the network that female characters aren't fungible.) That episode was one of the ones where I cringed, thinking that the show was going to do something horrible and embarrassing with a typical fish-out-of-water plot, and then they totally didn't.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic ("Call of the Cutie"). almeda was talking about it during Wiscon, so finally I had to see this kids' show with actual culture and world-building--this is the episode around the Pony coming-of-age ceremony. I can report that the world-building really is excellent, and that I would happily let my child watch this thing. And that the cheerful, high-pitched voices make me want to bite someone.
Loves Labours Lost live reading. I broke all my rules for Shakespeare and did not read a summary for the play before I went to the reading--and I've never seen or read it before. So it was interesting, going in with no idea what to expect. As far as I can tell, it's what happens when Shakespeare is in a writerly funk, wondering why anyone would ever want to watch this stuff, and then someone tells him they need a comedy by Friday. It's a parody of his other comedies, with all the male characters being Fools, and the "love interest" women entirely unimpressed by them. There are deliberately terrible sonnets. The characters screw with each other's heads for a while, and then the princess's father dies and everyone goes home talking about how being funny is really ineffective in the face of true tragedy. There are shout-outs to at least three or four other Shakespeare plays that I caught, which must make the people trying to put them in order do cartwheels. I got to read the pompous professor character, which was suprisingly cathartic. papersky was there and of course read brilliantly. S also knows her way around a reading, and there was one guest I hadn't met before who did the "clever servant" character brilliantly.
Total Books: 7
Recent Publication: 2/7
Recommendations: Marla Mason recommended by rushthatspeaks--thank you! Vinge recommended by papersky. The Hunger Games recommended by the 7 billion people who read it before me.
New Music: 2 albums
New Media Created: Finished the second Aphra Marsh story!