Lexicon by Max Barry
ISBN: 978-0143125426

This was a fast, fun read. I took a second day to finish reading it, only because I can’t stay up all night anymore. It is just too punishing to go without sleep.

I was tempted, though.

Imagine a world where some people are trained in secret, nearly undetectable and almost unstoppable powers of persuasion. Imagine if you knew enough about someone, you could sort them into a category, and based on that knowledge you could easily manipulate them. Now imagine being able to segment nearly everyone by type, because so much personal information is poured out into the world through interactions online… well, crap.

That’s a bit unsettling.

And that is what is so much fun about this book, if you can call a semi-apocalyptic thriller fun. I think you can. It is probably what Barry set out to write — and it is surely what he delivered. The idea that words literally have that kind of power? Catnip for book nerds, clearly.

This is the first of Barry’s books that I’ve read, but not his first novel — fortunately there are others I can now track down. My expectations are high based on this one.

In Other Worlds

In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood SF and the Human Imagination

by Margaret Atwood
ISBN: 9780385533973

I’ve been on something of a kick reading about stories/storytelling lately and this book definitely fits the theme. It is ostensibly about certain kinds of stories — science fiction — though is really about imagination, and how these kinds of stories are but one lens to examine ourselves and our world and to explore what makes us tick.

In some ways it’s an odd collection, mixing new essays with older review-type pieces and excerpts from longer, previously published work. Atwood has been a fan and creator from an early age: witness the flying rabbit superhero of her childhood. She’s also been a voracious reader, paying little attention to whether or not something was supposed to be good or bad. It didn’t matter to her if it was serious literature or seriously schlocky, she read it. (Though she does note “it’s always encouraging to be told that it is intellectually acceptable to read the sorts of things that you like reading anyway.”)

She talks about utopias and dystopias, inventing the word ustopia to combine the two, because in her view “each contains a latent version of the the other”. She talks about cartography:

With every map there’s an edge — a border between the known and the unknown. In old medieval and early Renaissance maps, the edges were where the monsters were drawn — the sea serpents and many-headed hydras, which were, as we say, off the map. Monsters live under the bed when you’re little because you can’t see under the bed when you’re actually in the bed.

I loved that bit about it’s because you can’t see under the bed. Of course.

In her piece on Bill McKibben’s Enough, she brings up his point that just because we have a technology doesn’t mean we have to use it, and cites among his examples the Amish (“who examine each new technology and accept it or reject it according to social and spiritual criteria”). We might accept a higher level of technology than the Amish, but as Atwood reminds us, we should still be setting social and spiritual acceptance criteria for what we let into our lives.

The collection does move around, from the aforementioned flying rabbits to adventure stories, to Victorian “scientific romances” to Orwell and Le Guin, to mad scientists and H.G. Wells to pulp cover art. Part of the fun in reading this collection is following Atwood as her mind wanders — not so much off course, as making and remaking connections.

We need her clear voice, and recognition of the need to act with conscience.

…this is the beginning of Newspeak. Fancy verbiage is what confuses Boxer the horse [in Animal Farm] and underpins the chantings of the sheep. To insist on what is, in the face of ideological spin, popular consensus, and official denial: Orwell knew this takes honesty, and a lot of guts. The position of odd man out is always an uneasy one, but the moment we look around and find that there are no longer any odd men among our public voices is the moment of most danger — because that’s when we’ll be in lockstep, ready for the Three Minutes’ Hate.

Yes, you’d expect the author of The Handmaid’s Tale to see this — and continue helping us to see. It’s not that she has particularly high expectations for society, it’s that she has a sense of right and wrong. It’s an author’s place to explore all the ground in the middle, true, but I like to think there’s a greater point than just poking around in the dark. You have to know some monsters must really be there, and stories help us prepare for finding them.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

by Charles Yu
ISBN: 9780307739452

I read Yu’s Third Class Superhero and enjoyed it, and I looked forward to reading his first novel.

Yu has included many clever nods to fanboys and fangirls in this book, including the very idea you can live in a universe that is a narrative structure that people obsess over. It’s a funny, clever, very meta read. It’s a book about time travel that manages not to make time travel sexy, which is more entertaining than it sounds.

What people really want, Yu seems to tell us, despite our resistance to it and running away from it, is a real life. The trick is recognizing the value in the one we’ve got.

Bad Monkeys

by Matt Ruff
ISBN: 9780061240423

This was a weird trippy story, funny and disturbed from the title on down. The narrative loops around on itself (okay, that was a lie; those drugs don’t exist) and questions its own believability. If you are a sucker for an unreliable narrator, you’ll have to read this book, because Jane Charlotte is your girl.

Janes’s story is fascinating. Paranoia? Check. Delusions and self sabotage? Check. Insane (insanely clever?) bureaucracy — with units named things like “The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons”? Check.

Ruff manages to ask some interesting and serious questions along the way. What’s evil? What about redemption? What should you be doing with your life? His characters make a distinction between fighting crime and fighting evil, and it doesn’t seem like splitting hairs.

If you like near future or alternate reality stories, want off kilter and a fast pace, I highly recommend Bad Monkeys. If you are like me, you’ll find yourself wanting parts of Ruff’s world to be real, then wondering what it says about you that you think that. Also: if mandrills didn’t creep you out before, now they will.

This is apparently the fourth book Ruff has written. I’ll be on the lookout for the previous three, and I eagerly await the next one, which he’s writing now.

View from the Seventh Layer

by Kevin Brockmeier
ISBN: 9780307387769

This collection of thirteen stories is hard to describe. There are fables (“A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets” is stunning), some are science fiction (“The Lady with the Pet Tribble” is probably best example of Brockmeier’s humor), and one is a choose your own adventure format (but is not in the least tacky). The stories aren’t all the same format or genre, aren’t more or less the same length — what they have in common is that they are well written, and they’ll make you think.

I imagine his stories would appeal to fans of short fiction that aren’t necessarily fans of genre fiction, as the stories are more about connections or loss or unintended consequences than they are about space travel or techological wizardry. What they seem to have in common is that they are quiet stories that burrow away in your head.

This is Brockmeier’s fourth book, though the first I’ve read. I’ll be looking for the others based on the strength of this collection. Definitely recommended.

Finding Creatures & other stories

by C. June Wolf
ISBN: 9780981065809

This collection of fifteen short stories surprised me. Individual stories — the ideas in them — stayed with me in ways I didn’t expect. There’s a museum security guard who transports otherwordly spirits, a discussion of hungry ghosts, an alien crash landing in the woods, and a kid who finds an angel in the form of a horse among others, but saying that makes the stories seem louder than they are.

Wolf’s stories aren’t loud, aren’t outlandishly over the top, aren’t hard to believe in the ways the list of characters might make them seem. They also aren’t quite as riveting as the subject matter might suggest (if you are into the supernatural or extraterrestrial). They quietly go about their business, moving from the beginning to the middle to the end, and while not really being all that impressive still managed to have an influence, to get me thinking about communication or the power of wishes or what is really important about consciousness or patience.

At the beginning of each story Wolf tells us a little about the story — the germ of an idea it sprang from, or some question she was turning over. I liked this, and I’ll confess it got me to keep reading when maybe I otherwise would have put the book down. I appreciated the effort of her sharing, and it made me curious to learn how the stories played out.

So it’s a quiet book, good but not stellar, full of unusual stories that are good companions for an afternoon though their ideas are stronger than their language. If this sounds like your kind of thing, probably is.

Note: I received this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. That means I didn’t pay for it. Participation in LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer is not dependent on writing a positive review; writing a review is all that is expected.

Dangerous Space

by Kelley Eskridge
ISBN: 1933500131

A few days after I finished reading Dangerous Space, I cranked up some tunes to get through a tedious bit of work on the computer. Not far into the first song (I’ll confess it was something from Fall Out Boy’s latest album, but the specific doesn’t really matter) I stopped, stunned, and realized: music sounds different now. Damn.

Yeah, this story collection is that good. [If you’ve already read Solitaire you may have experienced your own “damn, she’s good” Eskridge moment.]

Eskridge captures the fierceness of wanting — whether it is desire for another person, to give sound to something new, to know and be known as yourself — and how it is caught up with fear and hope. Her characters explore (with varying degrees of certainty and risk) giving, giving up, giving in, giving to another, giving to self, and they choose complicated over easy, pretty much every time. It makes for better stories.

I knew before I was halfway through the first story (“Strings”, with the power of its imagined music) I’d read this book more than once. Then there was “And Salome Danced” with its impossibility and thrumming desire, and “City Life” asking questions about right and wrong… all seven stories are worth the investment of your time. They stay with you. (The title story, a novella, is the one I was thinking of when I had my music moment.)

I think good short stories, really good short stories, are inspiring. They plant ideas — sometimes you don’t even know they are doing it when you are reading them — and days or weeks or months later, you find yourself mulling over something that started with a story. I believe this book will be like that. I loved reading it, and parts of those stories are in my head now, and I’m not sure what they’ll do. Highly recommended.

The Stone Gods

by Jeanette Winterson
ISBN: 9780151014910

I read this book pretty much in one go, on a Sunday afternoon. I love (okay, I have a love/bitter disappointment relationship with) Winterson’s books, so it isn’t that surprising I read it at that pace. I couldn’t help it: I wanted to know what was going to happen, if she could pull off this story, if I’d believe it, if I believed she believed it, if I could love it.

In some ways, it isn’t the world’s easiest book to love. Even though the language is occasionally stabbingly beautiful, and some of the lines bring me back to my favorites — The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, it isn’t easy to love. I want so badly to fall in love with a Winterson book again; with each new book my secret hope is this will be the one. Turns out, this isn’t the one — but that isn’t a complaint.

It got under my skin and left me feeling unsettled.

I appreciate that. Winterson is obviously wrestling with big questions here: What does it mean to tell stories? What does it mean to be human? To not get it right? To worry we’ll never get it right? Are we doomed to never get it right? What is the place of art in the face of apocalypse? How much do you push to make your point? What are decisions you can live with? What’s the difference between programming and love?

So she doesn’t give us the entire fantasy of The Passion. The world wasn’t really ending then with Napoleon though, was it? The very end of Sexing the Cherry might have been a hint these fables were coming, though. That we’d twist science to perfect ourselves, failing to realize that setting age or size or skin really isn’t enough, and isn’t perfection. That we’d poison the planet and be unable to stop, unable to save ourselves, unable to change — probably because we can’t really agree on what it means to be human. The most human characters in this book aren’t like anyone else: one is faking it because she’s too real, and the other isn’t a human at all, but a spectacularly beautiful robo sapiens.

I didn’t fall in love with this book, but I liked it. There’s enough satire, enough bright shiny bits flashing unexpectedly near you like minnows you can never catch, that I not so much forgave but embraced the bombastic ambition along with the story. Winterson is a great artist — just ask her — and The Stone Gods is a ride worth taking for that reason alone. (Which means she’s really back: this is no Art & Lies.) You might fight with her, you might wince, you might get angry, but you won’t be bored. You’ll ask questions. So she’s done her job.

Recommended, particularly if you’re already a Winterson fan. If she’s new to you I’d start with The Passion or Sexing the Cherry, unless science fiction is really your thing, then you’d probably want to start here.

The Zombie Survival Guide

Complete Protection From the Living Dead
by Max Brooks
ISBN: 1400049628

I thought World War Z was absolutely brilliant. This book is good, but Z was much better — probably because the Guide is played for humor, and Z was serious. Yes, I know, zombies — but it was serious, and very well done.

The Guide is a very tongue-in-cheek. I guess it would have to be, in order to discuss the relative merits of civilians using flamethrowers. Brooks is at his best when he isn’t going over the top discussing combat methods and or building your refuge in the deep wilderness, but rather teaching readers to recognize potential zombie incidents in crime stories in the news.

If you think of zombies as inherently funny (I don’t, but I do find zombie stories interesting) you should get this book. Otherwise, you should start with World War Z. This book is unsettling when it isn’t being ridiculous, but that one is creepy and riveting all the time.

Rainbow’s End

by Vernor Vinge
ISBN: 0812536363

I thought A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky were fascinating books: Vinge is able to write quite convincingly about non-humanoid aliens, not just as ideas, but as characters. In the Realtime books, bobble technology had me hooked. I searched for his earlier books Tatja Grimm’s World and The Witling in used bookstores, and wasn’t disappointed when I finally found them. Vinge is one of my favorite science fiction authors, so I was ready to love this book.

I tried, but I couldn’t love it. It didn’t (despite early signs that it might) pull off the expansive drama of the Deep books. I didn’t find Epiphany-level technology nearly as entrancing as bobbles. Even worse, by the end I felt as though there were enough truck-sized plot holes either Vinge was planning for a sequel or just stopped caring.

It is harder to create believable, absorbing near-future realities than it is to invent distant worlds in the far future. I think so, since you’ve got to get past the uncanny alley effect, not to mention the risk of seeming more obviously wrong. So the benefit of that doubt carried me through hundreds of pages. That, and knowing Vinge is a great science fiction writer, noted computer scientist, and worth listening to when it comes to where technology is headed. In other words, I finished the book, but didn’t find any magic in it. It isn’t that I disagreed with the likely “heavenly minefield” of soon-to-be modern medicine, or couldn’t believe in ubiquitous connectivity, wearable computers, and reality-as-mashup. The great reach and grand foolishness of both intelligence services and the entertainment industry also weren’t difficult to swallow. The real surprise was that, despite my best efforts, I just didn’t care. Not even with the the whole kid/grandkid angle. Nope.

It pains me to say so, but I don’t recommend Rainbow’s End. If you are a Vinge fan and a completist, you are going to read it anyway. If you are obsessed with possible near-future visions of the internet, it is worth reading. But if you’ve simply heard about Vinge and wonder what the fuss is all about, read another one of his book. Pick anything, just don’t start here.