Thursday, August 31, 2006

What I've been reading at the end of August

Well, a long post follows. I've been reading but haven't had much time to write for the ol' bloggy-blog. The whole family has been dealing with a summer cold. Then we had a potluck at our house last weekend. When you've got two small children, things that shouldn't be a big deal take a lot of time! And this week I've been super-busy with work. And with some reading . . . .

I finished Frederik Pohl's Man Plus a couple of weeks ago. I always enjoy Pohl. His writing has an edge and a distinct Pohl-y voice, which is often lacking in skiffy, where writers have traditionally favored transparent prose. (This isn't a put-down--there are good technical reasons for transparent prose in fantastic literature.) That having been said, while this book was okay, I was disappointed with the stereotyped characters. The women in particular were very hard to believe. Maybe the world has just changed too much in the last 30 years. Or maybe I'm making an excuse that isn't necessary.

So then I tried another skiffy novel, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, one of the writers responsible for the improved stature of space opera in today's skiffy landscape. (When I was at Clarion West years ago calling something space opera was considered an insult. I for one am glad this has changed.) I really dug the beginning of this. The writing is decent (transparent--ha!), the science is on the "hard" side, and the characters are deeper than cardboard. But the big win was the standard skiffy conceits of an ancient, lost, alien civilization and the Big Dumb Object. I was really into this until about a third of the way through the book when I realized I was pretty sure how it was all going to to turn out and that the parts I didn't know for sure were almost certainly not going to meet the promise of the Mystery set up in the novel's opening chapters. Since I hadn't met any characters that were much deeper than cardboard and the prose was only decent, and because life is short and the book shelves long, I gave up on this book.

Now it happens that, about the time I was giving up on Revelation Space, I found this essay by Nick Hornby. Coincidentally (and independently--I don't think he's reading my mind), Hornby advocates abandoning books you aren't enjoying. So I decided to give his collection of Believer essays, The Polysyllabic Spree, a try. Month to month, these essays list the books Hornby has bought and the books he has read, followed by some analysis of the books he has enjoyed. If you like Hornby, you know what you're getting into here. (If you're not already a fan, you should probably start with High Fidelity.) I added some books to my list as a result of this one. My favorite bit of trivia Hornby discovers while reading a biography of (amazing, amazing) writer Richard Yates. Larry David, creator of Seinfeld and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm once dated Yates's daughter. Elaine Benes from Seinfeld is based in part on the girlfriend, and her father, jerky writer Alton Benes, is based on Richard Yates. So.

Then I read Project X by Jim Shepard. Casey recommended it to me early last month. Holy cow! How did I manage not to hear of this guy before? Reminded me a little of George Saunders in the proportions of poignancy and humor, but the action is more grounded in reality (to use a skunked term) than Saunders's surreal, skiffy-ish stuff. Characters and events are sometimes pushed just a bit toward cartoonish-ness (in a way that reminds me a little of Tom De Haven). These touches make the whole thing seem more real, rather than less, however.

The book is a first person account (wish it weren't present tense, but maybe just me) of a teenage misfit, his sociopathic friend, and their plot to shoot up their middle school. I haven't bothered to look at reviews of the book, but I'm sure they all compare it to Catcher in the Rye. The comparison is actually apt--slangy, first person account of a misfit who is maybe just a little too sensitive and surely is too self-involved, self-destructive, and so on. Heck, he even has a nurturing hangup for his little brother. That got me thinking about the fact that so many first person books about young people, especially boys, are compared to Salinger's book. (Probably Salinger was on my mind because Hornby re-reads Salinger over the course of his book.) And I thought about how Hemingway said (overstating the case, sure) that all of American literature came out of Huck Finn. Surely, Catcher in the Rye might be said to owe something to Huck Finn. I imagine you could make a pretty good argument that all first person books now have to deal with the existence of Catcher in a similar way. (High Fidelity for instance.) I'm sure some grad student could make much of this. Maybe already has.

But this is a weblog. I'm stopping right here.


  1. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    Testing w/ Firefox.

  2. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    Testing Windows Firefox.

  3. Imported on behalf of: McI
    Oh, *now* it's working.

    Was curious as to what you detected as the "Pohl-y" voice. All I can remember from *Man Plus*--other than the vague outlines of the cyborg-fication plot--is a criticism special to sf, probably the oldest sort of specialized criticism for the genre: its quality as prediction. (This is not to suggest that I ever read past-due sf with this in mind other than for mild amusement, but I did pore over Heinlein's future inventions schematic a time or two as a high-schooler.) One of the constraints that the technicians in *Man Plus* run up against is the need for a computer complex enough to run the hero's systems and fit on his person, and the trend toward GIGANTIC computers (room- even planet-sized) to manage such a task. With microminiturization right around the corner (published in '78 if I remember right), the book suddenly became very dated (beyond its sexism)...

  4. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    Yeah, I'm kinda curious what I detected as a Pohl-y voice too. "Voice" is sort of a skunked term, I think. It usually means something close to style, a quality to gives writing a "spoken" quality, but I think I'm really talking more about "voice" as the quality of "presence," that sense that the writer is there with you as you read in a presence you can recognize across the writing. I think this is sort of a super-set of style, preoccupations, themes, repetitions. I think I'd stand a pretty good chance of picking Pohl out of a line up of, say, Alan Dean Foster and Allan Steele and, I don't know, some other really boring writer. But I'm too lazy to really pin it down.

    Now, while there are a number of ways in which *Man Plus* is screwed as SF, one interesting bit you may not remember is that it has a twist end where the whole plot has been engineered by computers which have secretly become sentient, anticipating by several years, the premise of many a cyberpunk story.

  5. Imported on behalf of: McI
    Heh, heh, Allan Steele would give it away with a monstrously stupid plot. I was just curious if you could put a finger on why you can tell it's Pohl's (or anyone's) voice--I know a few writers that I figure I can recognize the voice, but I couldn't point to any specifics, usually.

    In addition, I'd imagine it even tougher to do when authors use the "voice" of the protagonist (especially, but not necessarily in 1st person), which among stylistically sharper writers would change from story to story.

    I'd forgotten entirely the twist, probably because, yeah, it's been repeated so many times. Pohl's *Gateway*, if you can look past the silliness of the paired Freudian narrative, is one of my two favorite Big Dumb Object books.

  6. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    Voice is a wiggle word, I'm afraid. It's a lot easier to talk about when you're just talking about style.

    And yeah, I liked *Gateway* when I read it way back when. I have this feeling that the voice there would be somewhat easier to pin down than here. Even the Freudian business is something these two works have in common.

    Does *Orphans in the Sky* count as a Big Dumb Object story? I really like that one; of course the twist there is that the object is a generation starship. Aldiss wrote one of those too. That the characters were on a starship was supposed to be the big surprise ending. The American publisher renamed it *Starship*, I think! Haven't read that one, though.