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Short Reviews of Random Stuff

I read a lot of science fiction and buy a lot of stuff. This is what I think of it. And yes, those ARE amazon referral links, thanks for asking!
Permutation City

It's been hard to find decent science fiction since quantum mechanics hit the public consciousness. Not because it snapped us into a universe where science fiction authors suck, but because it created a glut of authors who think one of two things: consciousness creates the universe (false), or there are an infinite number of universes and we can get to them (sort of probably false and very very very probably false).

These ideas on their own are interesting science fiction ideas, but what most writers do is present them as real science so they can just say "quantum" and skip the science part of science fiction, then go totally off the rails and write straight up fantasy. In science fiction, you have to give us some plausible mechanism of cause and effect, no matter how divorced it is from the real world. If you want to make your characters gods, fine, but please do a search and replace to change "quantum" to "arcana" or "eldritch" or something. Hell, I'd look forward to reading about eldritch mechanics.

Greg Egan gets it. His universes are fantastic and alien, but they are built in a language that could conceivably evolve from the rules of the universe as we know it. There's underlying logic and the plots revolve around this logic and its limitations.

Forewarning: Egan doesn't give a shit about your liberal arts degree. This prose is dense. To my knowledge, this is the hardest sci-fi ever, period. It can be harder to read than actual science. I've found my eyes glazing over for multiple pages, had to stop to look up theories and words that don't necessarily mean what they currently mean, and I've occasionally just giving up completely and hoped I'm not missing a big plot point. If you don't think five pages describing the subjective experience of walking in five physical dimensions is worth reading seven times until you "get" it, Egan is not for you. I've linked to Permutation City because it's a nice mix of his character-driven and what-the-everloving-fuck-did-I-just-read styles.

The Girl With All the Gifts

Strong, mysterious opening. Daring, surprising ending. Weak, tedious middle. Carey is strongest when he's completely in his own world of subtle and constrained interactions through a narrow lens. When he opens up to the broader world and different perspectives, the interactions feel forced and expository. More problematic, only one character has an arc: nobody else changes, so their perspectives aren't as interesting, they're just explicating why they're shitty and/or alienated people. Still, for all that, it's a unique take on old story. Glad I read it.

American Elsewhere

I almost didn't buy this book because of its title. In fact, when I recommend it to friends I open with, "Ignore the shitty title, this book is great." And it is great. Bennett has a talent for instilling a creeping dread with straightforward description. The book doles out information at just the right pace, making its reveals just as you're figuring them out on your own, making for an addictive stream of rewards, sort of like the literary equivalent of World of Warcraft, without the Cheeto stains and accumulating feeling of emptiness.

Though it drags at a few key places where it shouldn't, the duldrums were always followed by hurricanes, so I never felt my time was wasted.

Bennett chucks the old either/or addage of literature and writes about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: it's the arc of his narrative that consistently goes from the ordinary to the bizarre. I look for stories that either kill God or create a universe, and Bennett usually does both.

Ubik

I first heard of Ubik while reading a list of movies that never got made. No filmmaker has managed to turn this psychadelic nightmare into a coherent script. Intrigued, I read it, and immediately understood why.

The main conflict changes three or four times, and it's never clear what the main conflict even is until just before the end, and then the very last paragraph makes it unclear again. There are a number of explanations for why something that seemed important three chapters before is no longer important, and about a third of the book is a very confusing chunk of nothing happening. This chunk is filled with the promise of answering a disturbing mystery with something intersting, but, no, it's a side effect of what's actually (maybe) going on which is profoundly less interesting than what it could have been.

I typed several variations of "wtf really happened in Ubik" into google, and got a lot of confused semi-theories that gave up, all with big disclaimers to the effect of "It's not the author's fault, we're just not smart enough to get it."

Fuck that jazz. PKD lost track of what he was doing, and just threw more shit at the wall until he had a decent word count. This book is one missed opportunity after another, culminating in him realizing the ending was kind of drab so he threw in a final twist to mess with people and called it a day.

Touch Or anything else by Claire North. Holy balls is she good. She can build a world like Roger Zelazny and keep the pages turning like Stephen King. I'm going to compare her to Ursula K. Le Guin despite how it might make some cringe at a man comparing a new female science fiction author to the only other female science fiction author most people can name that isn't Margaret Atwood, but I'm doing it because Le Guin is so goddamn good and so prolific people take her for granted. That's what I see in Claire North's future: a stream of addictive genius that we rely on without thinking. Also, she's not really a new writer, Claire North is a pseudonym she took because she was already a successful writer and wanted to try something different. This exact move is a personal fantasy of mine, so I like her even more for that. I should probably say something about the actual book: mastery of language and narrative flow, about a ghost who changes bodies by touching people. It won't answer every question, but it will answer the ones that need to be answered. You will know and love the protagonist by the end, and wonder what makes your own life so special for weeks afterwards. Although I just turned 35 at time of writing, so I was thinking about that anyway. I'd probably be less existential about it if I'd read it when I was younger.

Tiger hat The beginning of this year sucked for me. I worked 50 consecutive days, except for one day I took off after my cat died of an unknown illness. It was cold and dark and full of snow and climate change deniers. It was NYC slightly more awful than usual. I'm no furry and I don't play cos, but sometimes you need a big tiger hat to wrap around yourself. It's also ridiculously warm, and got me through some of the nastier winter days, although fair warning: if you cavort with a bunch of asshole drunks approaching middle age like I do, they will make a bunch of child molestor jokes when they catch you wearing it.

The Great North Road This is a long book. Kindle has been great for my long-book reading because I don't have that thick, intimidating handful of unread pages mocking me with the voice of my high school English professors, but this book had me checking the remaining read time and shouting "52 more fucking hours?"

I did not have a stroke at the end, or run down to the bar at 2am to scream at people the way I did at the end of Lost, so the story kept me wanting answers, and the answers were good. And detailed. Very, very detailed. Speaking of, my only other gripe is that all I know about the appearance of the male protagonist is he's 40ish with you know, 40ish things going on, while I can pinpoint the exact location of every freckle on the most minor female character. Come on, dude.

Kicker Portable speaker. Acceptable though not crazy sound, and convenient if you're sitting outside and everybody wants to play their youtube videos or that song you just have to hear. Leah and I tried to use it instead of her computer speakers, which is fine for music, but there's a little lag so it's infuriating if you're watching something, unless it's dubbed. Most important, if you buy this for your S.O. and want to be cute and start playing Where It's At as she's unwrapping it, be sure to leave it silently playing something between wrapping and delivery, because the bluetooth connection drops out automatically after five minutes or so and she'll look at you funny as you fumble around with your phone in increasing irritation.

BONUS: Free jokes relating to its proportions and color. "Meaty sound," for instance.

Hi there! You should totally go buy my book for the low low price of 6.73! It's like buying me a beer at an out-of-the-way dive bar in Brooklyn! Not in Manhattan. Manhattan prices are ridiculous, though there are a couple of decent Irish dives where you can snag a drink for five bucks. Otherwise, you're looking at a two or three book beer.
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