Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was good – but not as amazing as his other books. It felt like it fell apart more and more at the end, so many great ideas scattered across the field and then never explored, so many plot twists that meant nothing…
It’s kind of the Transformers: Dark of the moon for good thoughtful SF. Does that make sense?
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I’ve been sharing tidbits from You Will Die straight from my nook. It can share straight to twitter. That’s cool!
Just now, it told me that I had reached the “Sharing Limit“. That’s amazing!
You know what that means? In a conference call, someone said “But what if they tweet out the whole book?”
Mary Roach’s books are just like her TED talk. They’re smart, funny and charm you with a total affection for her subject matter.
I’ve read all her books and so far Packing for Mars is the best. She is writing about the insane goal of shipping a few bubbling meat bags through an irradiated vacuum for 500 days so that we can visit a lifeless planet.
She covers it all from a people perspective, looking at the glorious business of being a person. How do we handle the boredom, the food, the farting? She covers the serious problems with poop, pee, vomit and also sex. The book is worth reading for the chapter on Space Hygiene alone. It’s called “Houston We Have a Fungus”.
Near the end, a final quote from Ben Franklin, on someone who sees the Montgolfiers’ maiden balloon flight and calls it frivolous:
What use is a newborn baby?
James Boice reached out to me to collaborate on a digital version of his short story “The Degaussment”. I didn’t have time to make anything worthwhile before he released it, but I was blown away by the what he sent me.
This is a story of mad obsession, a dying technology, horrible wounds, and a skill that eats its owner alive. I tore through it in a sitting, then read it again later. You aren’t going to pay $2 for a better experience today, so grab it now.
James gives a crap, so he’s not just selling a Kindle or Nook version – you can buy a DRM free epub file that works or a PDF for the same price. I ended up buying all the rest of his stories – he’s selling them for $.99 each.
I do not often tell you to buy something. Buy this.
Young Helward graduates into manhood and responsibility at the age of “650 miles old.” For him, this means helping guide the city his civilization lives in north to safety on 4 giant rails. To the south,a terrible secret danger grows, always more powerful, always dragging anything too slow backwards into it.
We follow Helward through an inverted story on an inverted world. The hero is not the iconoclast, but tries his best to prop up the calcified old order. Over time we learn more about the danger behind them. The descriptions of Helward’s journey down south into the past is a highlight of the book. It is hard to tell you about this without giving too much away, but if you liked “Flatland”, you will like this.
Ok, that is nice, but the book feels always a little styled, a little uncomfortable and I found out why at the end of the book. The story arc is as twisted as the physics are. Also, the book was written in the 70s, there is a flavor of writing from that time that is unfamiliar on my inner ear. It is strange to reflect that in such a short time, the rhythms of writing have changed enough to make a noticeable difference, but they have. I can’t quite sort out what it is, but it is there. If you have any idea what it is, please comment.
Alas, it is a good book, but not a great book. I found myself appreciating the weirdness, but waiting for it to get even weirder. Perhaps this is because the book was written in a time where people were beginning to really feel the old order collapse, while I live in an age of change both exponential and fractal. I think you should read great books, and there are so many. You’ll die far far before you read all the great books, which is why I drink.
Another fin del mundo comes as Alan Moore’s Neonomicon. While Supergod is almost plotless – more a series of provocative ideas strung together, Neonomicon is a train on rails to hell. Every page brings you closer to Cthulhu in an FBI investigation of a Lovecraft copy-cult in Brooklyn. Instead of hitting all of the high notes of a Cthulhu story like Nick Mamatas did in Move Underground, Moore brings you the creeping dread, the knowledge of the potential coming. There’s one monster in the book (other than the people) but most of it is more about the dark at the top of the stairs rather than the monster stomping into view. Also, a secret about Alan Moore I have noticed: the secret to horror is killing real people. When a person with no connection to you dies, it means nothing to you. So, before Moore begins killing people in his stories, he connects them to you. Most writers don’t want to waste character time and exposition on people that they know are going to disappear later – they are having enough trouble getting you to care about the main character. Moore is fast at fleshing out people, so he has the time to make his secondary characters real characters with just hints and flashes of their past.
For me, the Brooklyn setting is icing. My adopted city is perfect for this sort of story, and if Moore gets some of the details of BK wrong, it is still creepier to read a horror story written WHERE YOU LIVE! Imagine “The Wilderness Downtown“, but after dark on a moonless night. That gives me another idea for a project – a short story set in your house, right where you live.
Supergod is a Warren Ellis blaspheme with a great concept. As the world ends and falls into chaos and darkness, a researcher narrates how we reached this sad state by weaponizing gods that we built ourselves. It’s explicitly about the superhero myths: why would these hyper-intelligent, superpowerful beings love us and care about our happiness?
The art is sweeping, raging battles between the weaponized gods of India, Russia, America, etc., or the blighted scavenged ruins of the apocalyptic end. In the foreground, the researcher – a Warren Ellis mouthpiece – raves about why people want gods, why gods would want us, how our flaws would lead us to misuse them in the first place. He’s got good points – we claimed the power to destroy the world with nuclear weapons and haven’t done so yet, but it often seems more an accident than our inherent goodness. I’ve got a soft spot for Ellis, ever since Transmetropolitan and Scars, and this is a good romp in his best style.
We got back Sunday at 6 in the morning and have been frantic since. This weekend we can hopefully get some brewing done and sort through the huge pile of pictures.
We got to see many many things during our two 15 hour flights, 4 days in Kruger National Reserve, 4 hour bus ride, and all the rest of the excitement. We’ve met an amazing amount really good folks and had some fantastic experiences but on the flight back I was shocked at how many books and movies I’d consumed during just the travel and downtime.
- Spotted Ginnet
- White Rhinocerous – Last chance to see, I find it hard to imagine they will be around for my grandchildren.
- African Elephant – Nothing prepares you for how huge and awesome these are. Also, I was disappointed to find out they are jerks.
- African Buffalo
- Batalieur (Short Tailed) Hawk
- Lion – These murder machines are intensely powerful up close. I had one eyeball me for 30 seconds and it was all terror.
- Giraffe – Surreal in person.
- Jozi – A really great South African comedy about drugs, recovery, and one man’s relationship with Johannesburg
- The Beaver – Sam and I loved this movie, which does not mean we want to hang out with Mel Gibson.
- Midnight in Paris – This was brilliant. Particularly Hemingway.
- Bride Wars – Trapped on a bus. This occupied time and kept us from hearing the incessant beeping of the bus falling apart.
- Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys – Ditto.
- Green Lantern – less than 15 minutes. Amazing that it was released.
- Hangover 2 – I can’t believe this is happening again.
- The Departed
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – This finally helped me get some sleep. Thank you soundtrack made of drones!
- Tucker Max Assholes Finish First – A male heavy drinking narcissist tells funny stories about his horrible behavior. Very funny. A bunch of great stories that belong in a bar at 2 am. His only redeeming quality is his honesty.
- Dan Ariely The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home
- Lauren Beukes Zoo City – Great! Loved this Noir detective story set in a Johannesburg full of people who get familiars when they commit a crime. Feels like Robert Parker meets Philip Pullman in South Africa.
- David Cross I Drink for a Reason – Without his delivery, his routines are less compelling.
- Lev Grossman The Magicians – Best thing I read. A Harry Potter style story that has real people, with actual characters. What would a magic academy full of actual teenagers be like? What happens once you actually graduate? Also, great villains and call outs to Narnia.
- Chelsea Handler My Horizontal Life – A female heavy drinking narcissist tells funny stories about her horrible behavior. Very funny, but I wonder if gender roles limit the pride that shines through in Tucker’s stories.
- Christopher Hitchens The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever – Worth it for the bits of Lucretius.
- Richard Kadrey Butcher Bird – I had read a previous version for free online. It’s still good and very weird.
- Sir Terry Pratchet The Wee Free Men – I don’t even know that it’s very funny, but I think I will read these books till he dies.
- Sir Terry Pratchet Wintersmith
- Cherie Priest Boneshaker – It’s got all the elements of steampunk, but it didn’t feel like it had a heart.
- Philip Pullman The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – I like Pullman and I like inversions of religious stories. Why couldn’t I get into this book?
- Kathryn Stockett The Help – Second best thing I read. I read this out loud to Sam while I was sick in bed for a few days. Full of great mysteries and little gold coins all along the way.
Rule 34 and Halting State are breakneck police procedurals set 20 minutes into the future. Charlie Stross has made his authorial mark the imagining of plausible, realistic worlds that push the back of your skull into the wall. They are better written and more speculative than Daniel Suarez’s books set in the future now – but they also deal with harder material.
The plot is so ridiculous and yet perfectly put together that I can’t tell you because you’ll think it’s a crappy stupid idea. I keep typing oblique plot summaries and they all sound like the absolute worst book ideas. You’ll miss out on some really mind-blowing fun writing.
In the most abstract sense Rule 34 (named after the infamous pornography postulate) is a serial killer hunt and Halting State is a heist novel (named after a term in a mathematical problem that breaks the premise that the world is a solvable problem). The biggest criticism is that these are idea novels – you aren’t getting into serious emotional relationships with these characters. If you read a lot of Sci-Fi, you won’t notice, but if you read more literature you’ll probably be annoyed that the emphasis is always on the breathless action.
A fun punchy read and a good sign in someone who’s become a professional prognosticator. You should also check out Charlie Stross’s frequently updated blog, where he regularly bitches about how the future keeps happening and stealing plot points out from under him as he writes.