Thursday, December 27, 2007

Catching up on some fiction

1. Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children - didn't quite enjoy this. It was about the lives of twenty something bright young things in NYC around the time of 9/11. I was a little disappointed after the hype. I just borrowed The Last Life and hope that it will be better.

2. Lee Vance's Restitution - enjoyed this even though the fact that the police did not bother to ask about Andrei's other relatives (i.e. his twin sister) was a little hard to believe for me. (I must be watching too much Law and Order.) The plot was very well constructed with a nice twist at the end. Some would have probably guessed the mastermind of the plot by about 2/3rds of the book.

3. Kim Stanley Robinson's Antartica - even though KSR is a science fiction writer I would not classify this as science fiction. The book dragged on for me in parts but the geological details were fascinating.

4. Andrew Trees' Academy X - was quite enjoyable. Most memorable passage (coming off Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: "They were there to convince an admission's officer that their child's finger painting displayed a color sensibility reminiscent of Rothko or that their child's tantrum was a sign of leadershop qualities. Once this pattern was established, it was difficult to break. By the time the students reached high school, everyone was well trained." (p. 17)

5. Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days - was okay. This was my first Michael Cunningham and I found the first story tremendous. I agree with some reviewers who consider the third and last story to be the weakest. This was set in the future and in parts, rather than to let us feel what the characters feel, he plunges into a narrative of how things evolved to be the way they were. In the interest of expediency I realize that this makes things a little easier but something along the lines of Oryx and Crake might have worked better. In any case, it makes me want to explore his other works. I do want to keep the book description here to remind me about the book though, so here goes:

In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel, his first since The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, an older man, and a young woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. "The Children's Crusade," set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, "Like Beauty," evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.

Presiding over each episode of this interrelated whole is the prophetic figure of the poet Walt Whitman, who promised his future readers, "It avails not, neither time or place ... I am with you, and know how it is." Specimen Days is a genre-bending, haunting, and transformative ode to life in our greatest city and a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny. It is a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.

6. Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End - was okay for me. It was interesting to see one view of what the future might be. The problem with trying to describe the future with today's perspective is that there are some page read like a manual of how things came to be - rather dry and descriptive. And having to describe the ability to use one's clothes as a browser to be connected to the Internet at all times in terms of Internet Explorer was a little inelegant -- it seems like there must be a better way but this would mean having to invent a whole new language. Certainly 10 years ago, bookmark, page view, cut and paste, click etc. meant different things.

7. Charles Stross' Singularity Sky - was interesting. This was interesting after having read the Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Stross and Vernor Vinge are considered hard science fiction writers and this book has a lot of stuff in it -- with the hard science a little overwhelming for me - description of how faster than light travel would work for instance, as well as causality violation. It reminded me of some old Star Trek episodes -- here, telephones fall out of the sky and we can order what we want over these telephones. Most memorable passage: "... the viability of a postsingularity economy of scarcity is indicated by the transition from an indirection-layer-based economy using markers of exchange of goods and services to a tree-structured economy characterized by optimal allocation of productivity systems in accordance with iterated tit-for-tat prisoner's dilemma." (p. 143)

I think markers in the text might be a typo for markets but the passage seems meaningless to me. I go a good chuckle out of it though.

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