Friday, May 29, 2015


Nick Harkaway's Tigerman is a slippery book --- by turns a colonial narrative, a modern action-adventure, and a heart-rending account of the emotional trials of parenthood. This unusual combination meant that my reading brain swung wildly from one framework (high school English class, reading Things Fall Apart, Heart of Darkness, Rudyard Kipling, Interpreter of Maladies) to another (James Bond, modern techno-spy thrillers, social media management to cause political change). I had trouble establishing preconceived notions... but that is a good thing. The opposite of a complaint. This book kept me on my readerly toes.

The focus, in limited third-person, is on Sergeant Lester Ferris, a semi-retired soldier who is the solitary remaining vestige of British colonial administrative/diplomatic/police presence on Mancreu, a fictional island in the Indian ocean, populated by "an unbothered ethnic jumble of Arab and African and Asian, with the inevitable admixture of Europeans." (p. 12) The island is slated to be nuked into oblivion in a futile attempt to prevent the dissemination of festering industrial waste dumped there by imperial Western companies. Lester fills his days with merry bumbling around (consuming tea, chatting with locals) in the usual colonial-novel style, including befriending a clever street-kid, the pub owner, the witch doctor, the spookily mysterious shaman, and other residual police/political presences on the island.

So far, so typically colonial narrative. Aging military man's body a metaphor for toxic-waste-ridden island a metaphor for the failures of Western imperialism. But every few pages there is a modern touch: a mention of Twitter, people watching YouTube, cell phones, sophisticated cryptography, weaponized drones and spy satellites able to resolve faces.[0] The effectively nameless Clever Street Kid (CSK) refers to comics  from the 50s and internet collectives (Reddit, Anonymous)  in the same breath.

The effect of these weird juxtapositions and limited third person is captivating. Lester draws big, overgeneral conclusions about the world around him[1], but is inward-turning. His internal monologue is mostly silent, and not especially self-reflective, but a dry, jolly humor [2] shows through. He usually thinks single, compact thoughts, and doesn't explain them to himself --- so that even when readers were present for his planning scenes, his later actions and motives are unexpected. Lester's mental focus is unusual to read, a truly different perspective than my own; he fixated on things I would have let slide, and completely missed obvious clues and hooks that would have absorbed all my focus.

Tigerman is full of little snide over-the-shoulder winks to the reader. Or maybe Lester is just the kind of person who continually makes such remarks to those around him (and his own internal monologue), whether they will be appreciated or not. Either way, this was a clash of expectations that I enjoyed. The head researcher describes one of her interns thusly:
"A genius. I cannot come up with enough jobs to keep him busy, so I permitted the other interns to assign him their extra work. ... He established a trading floor for basic tasks and cornered the market in coffee-making futures, and then the espresso machine very mysteriously broke down. So he is a task billionaire. He has calculated that if the others do all his chores and nothing else for seven thousand years, they will be free of the debt."  (p.107)
The book is well worth reading for these nuggets of joy. Its only off-putting feature was its conclusion, the climax and denouement, which came out of left field (although lightly foreshadowed, in retrospect) and left me unsatisfied. It felt sort of like the publisher might have snatched the manuscript out of the author's hands and declared it prematurely hatched. It seems slapdash, unfinished; it did not match the rest of the novel for polish or flair.

... or maybe I am bitter because the story turned out bitter, it did not end the way I was hoping. I admit this possibility.
This post's theme word is apopemptic, "relating to departing or leave-taking." Mancreu's existence is an extended apopemptic metaphor for all kinds of human culture.

[0] For example: "If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of Fifty Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy. But probably not, ... because not everyone liked Benedict Cumberbatch."(p. 275)

[1] These are pithy nuggets:
  • "It seemed unlikely that this crime would remain mysterious for very long. There was a limited number of things you could do with four tons of fresh fish." (p. 48)
  • "In America, everything was diagnosable, probably even positive traits could be treated if you wanted to get rid of them." (p. 86)
  • "Serious criminals... had been transferred to prisons in Scandinavian countries where the crime rate was actually dropping so fast that the prison infrastructure was having trouble staying afloat. Denmark had been a net importer of criminals since 2011." (p.81) This one has a Neal Stephensonian flavor.
[2] For example, at a funeral they sing "some involved Legion funeral song which seemed to the Sergeant's uncertain ear for French to involve a great deal of discussion of veal sausage and the shortcomings of the Belgians." (p. 77) Or in conversation with his superiors: 

"How's your stomach for totally mendacious bilge?" the Consul had asked him. 
"Limited, sir." (p. 37)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Be still, my beating heart!

In a question-and-answer on io9, Neal Stephenson delighted me to my very core.
Icecold Davis: Any chance of revisiting the world of the Baroque Cycle? 
Neal Stephenson: I would like nothing better than to dwindle into a long retirement writing books in that vein. Maybe I will. But not now.
I have purchased three copies of each brick in the Baroque Cycle (hardcover, paperback, ebook). This comment delights!

This post's theme word is forficate, "deeply forked." Readers are entranced by the forficate plot, winding sentence structure, and delicate interweaving of plausible fiction with fascinating historical fact.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jean le Flambeur series

Hannu Rajaniemi's Jean le Flambeur (lit: John the Big Spender or the Heavy Gambler) follows the adventures of the titular Jean, a headline-making thief of great notoriety, as he breaks out of prison, steals an assortment of things, develops friendships, double- and triple- and n-tuple-crosses everyone and their parents, and eventually (perhaps) saves all of civilization from destruction (indirectly). It's a neat trilogy, with some cool ideas, but I think it stretches on a bit too long; it would make a tight duology.

The Quantum Thief follows Jean as he escapes a very cool-sounding prison where the iterated prisoner's dilemma combines with adaptive neural learning to "teach" the prisoners to be cooperative. This is a neat idea with actual math behind it (although of course there are many equilibria aside from 100% cooperation). Then he goes to a walking robo-city on Mars where all perceptions of experiences are digitally mediated and managed by a permissions/privacy system, so for example a stranger can deny you the passive observation of the stranger's visual appearance by limiting your permissions. This is a really cool idea, short-circuited by the fact that analog cameras are not subject to the permissions system and completely subvert it. (It seems like vision should, too, except that everyone's brains are being actively edited by a vast computer system which forces perception to align with permissions.)

Lots of other cool ideas abound, but of course the privacy ones piqued my interest. The book was a merry caper, although many mysteries were revealed to be explained by mechanisms that the reader never learned about (until they were narratively necessary to explain the reveal!). This is an irksome authorial practice, but the book is so flamboyantly imagined, with futuristic details and descriptive glitter everywhere, that it gets a pass. For example, on page 193:
His workshop is a cross between a quantum physics laboratory and a horologist's workspace, full of sleek humming boxes with holodisplays hovering around them and neatly sorted piles of tiny gears and tools on wooden work surfaces.
Certain paragraphs or sentences blazed out of the book, gems of excellence and clarity. (Page 49's "Interlude: THE KING" has an outstanding opening paragraph.)

Overall I recommend the book. After finishing the last page, I realized that most of the mysteries hadn't been answered or even completely framed; there was a giant trail of breadcrumbs leading somewhere. Thus we proceed to the second novel!

The Fractal Prince follows Jean as he does some more high-octane thievery and conniving. The scene is transported to a post-uplift/apocalypse Earth, and the previous privacy/permissions technology is abandoned in favor of a system of magic, storytelling, and djinn. This is cool, although in the end it is explained away as basically a different skin over the same technology as before, so that Jean's story isn't actually jumping universes when it planet-hops. This is both enervating (an entirely new magic/technology system to explore!) and irritating (all familiarity with technology from book 1 is useless, esp. for trying to solve the caper-mysteries before the reveal).

The coolest part is that book 2 has many threads, and these threads recurse at several points. The djinn-flavor comes with a 1001-Arabian-Nights spin: stories are powerful, and narrative truth compels. This means that the way the novel unfolds influences how the characters' abilities unfold, since their puissance is directly tied to their ability to recount (in an interesting narrative) how their story has developed so far. This is a nice touch. I'd like to see more done with this. Perhaps another book following (or prequelling) the secondary characters here?

Book 2 doesn't really resolve any of the mysteries developed in book 1. It throws a couple new ones on the pile, and strongly entices you to the promise of book three of three:

The Causal Angel. This book suffered heavily from... existing. And from a lenient editor permitting it to develop John-C-Wright-Eschaton-series Syndrome, wherein the basic plot (a few paragraphs) was rolled in glue and then dipped in jargon and buzzwords, and this cycle was repeated until the conglomerate attained adequate size to justify a novel.  The interesting and true mathematical touches from book 1 are completely thrown out the window here in favor of using spiffy combinations of mathematical words in nonsense configurations. Main characters had interactions which served no purpose but to show off new, special jargon (and universes and technologies) invented by the rampaging and unsupervised kudzu-like authorial imagination. Most descriptions served no purpose. The stakes were raised so ridiculously high that the entirety of civilization was at stake, and this created no tension because of course Jean is going to pull some sneaky caper that resolves the entire thing.

The last third of the novel consists mainly of all permutations of the scene wherein two named characters meet, talk about their overarching conflict, try to cooperate while secretly scheming, then resolve their emotional baggage and say goodbye-for-all-eternity. The denouement is just a glued-on-jargon solution which magically (in heavy quotes: "technologically") hops to another universe for a stupendously oppressive deus ex machina.

Overall I don't regret reading the trilogy; I wish it had been better-managed, though, for a cleaner finish. And the driving mysteries from book 1 are never explicitly answered, so I could have stopped at book 1 (or 2) and just imagined, or preserved the sweet curiosity of an unresolved plot.

This post's theme word is damascene, "to gild," or "having a wavy pattern," or "sudden and significant." The damascene descriptions imbricate with damascene revelations.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max

Mad Max: nonsensical subtitle was exactly as advertised. The ads show: a handful of characters, sand, guns, cars/trucks/explosions, grit, dirt, and more guns. This is what you get, in a there-and-back two-hour-long car chase with very few scenes devoted to anything but chase action.

It approaches the platonic ideal of a summer action movie. Almost all dialog is removed; almost all characters are nameless; the plot (and the cars) move in one direction only, and that is towards destruction. Everything gets exploded, cut, shot, burnt, squashed, and destroyed. Well, nearly everything. Obviously there are some desert rocks which go essentially unchanged. And somehow quite a few people avoid sunburn.

Apparently it's causing a ruckus amongst people concerned with the dangers posed by having a prominent female character with agency, but these concerns are ridiculous. The movie did not seem to grind any particular axe, unlike, say, The  Dark Knight Rises (overtly anti-Occupy-Wall-Street) or District 9 (anti-apartheid). It was mostly pro-explosions and car chases. Pro-guns. Maybe anti-deserts? At least, pro-water. But that's an undisputed stance. Everyone is pro-water; we are water-based lifeforms.

This post's theme word is augean, "extremely difficult, unpleasant, or filthy." The augean desert wastland holds no appeal as a vacation destination.

Friday, May 15, 2015


Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is a novel (part one of a trilogy) which tries very hard to evoke a creepy atmosphere. It didn't work on me, but your mileage may vary.

The extremely untrustworthy first-person narrator serves as the primary tool for executing and implementing the extreme creepiness of the atmosphere. But the narrator is so extremely untrustworthy that she barely gets to explain what is going on in the novel --- she keeps interrupting her own narrative with exclamations about her untrustworthiness, with flashbacks about her undependable memory, with second-guesses of her own first-hand experiences. If this was excised, the novel would be a lot shorter and less interesting (like watching Memento in the right order).

Ok, so the untrustworthy narrator (one of my favorite tools, when executed subtly and well) didn't make it creepy. What about the setting, the monsters, the story?


They just didn't catch me enough to be creepy. The narrator and the emotional timbre of the entire novel were a little too distant to have any emotional hook. It just seemed... remote. Why should any reader care about the story, when even the narrator gets disassociatively bored at the climactic parts and switches to describing something else? (And as a perpendicular complaint: there was simply not enough hard science in this novel, for a narrative that supposedly came from a scientist's mind.)

Yes, I realize this is all part of a more carefully structured trilogy. Many reviewers say that book 1 makes a lot more sense, re: narrative jumps and avoiding descriptions, after reading book 3. But my time is finite and this just didn't entice me enough to pick up the following novels in the series.

This post's theme word is lysergic, "trippy, psychedelic" --- but often used to describe natural panoramas of beauty and majesty, in my reading experience. The swampy and forested expanses rolled out before her in lethargic, lysergic beauty.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Watery prose

In reading various economic/political/rationalist/social articles about the California drought, I came across this very satisfying text:
These problems stem from the physical properties of the stuff. The amount of water you need to irrigate a field is big and heavy; it’s slippery — to hold it we need special containers (like reservoirs); it’s always moving, and mixing, and splitting into pieces, so it’s hard to tell whose is whose; it unpredictably falls out of the sky, and has no respect for property lines; if you drop it, it disappears into the ground. Because water is liquid in the physical sense, it is not at all liquid in the financial sense. []
Sentences like these make me glad I live in a literate era.

This post's theme words come together: recondite, "concerned with a profound, difficult, or esoteric subject; little known, obscure" and perspicuous, "clearly expressed, easy to understand." The perspicacious prose clarified all confusion on the recondite relevancies.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


There is now a cluster of local basil available for Local Basil Emergencies as well as Local Basil Intake Quotas (LBE/LBIQ). Huzzah!

Further updates as the news unfolds!

This post's theme word is sybarite, "a person devoted to luxury and pleasure." There is a sybaritic garden on my balcony!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Atrocity Archive

Reading a book by Charles Stross is like having my brain gently massaged by a socially well-adjusted hybrid of Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow. It is smart, and respectful, and snarky. It is wonderfully fun, and relaxing in the way that creates a buzzing energy and the desire to go do something [smart and snarky, in all likelihood].

The Atrocity Archive is a novella that cheers.

It uses the trappings of serious academic geekery (Turing is mentioned all over the place, plus the names of specific problems and techniques of my subfield!) without abusing it like an incantation or some sort of flavortext dropped in to add appropriate nerd-spice to your novel (à la John C. Wright's The Hermetic Millenia, etc.).

It blends in a dash of Lovecraft for horror, but most of the horror comes --- ironically and in terrifying earnest --- from having too many bosses, filling out paperwork, scheduling meetings, staring at org charts, and discussing internal politics on time-delayed memoranda. It is gut-clenchingly fear-inducing horror for adults, who have seen the world and know that zombies and eldrich horrors are survivable, while an audit may end you.

This post's theme word is brisance, "the shattering effect of a high-energy explosion." Page 171 quoth: "... the gunk is a high-brisance explosive and it cuts through the reinforced steel door like a blowtorch through butter."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Lives of Tao

Wesley Chu's The Lives of Tao as a spy-adventure novel, with a fantasy-alien premise that frees the narrative from the necessity of focusing on a single main character, and even frees it of the narrative inconvenience of death of any characters. The novel's premise is impervious to character death! That is, the plot could continue, still interesting, still with emotional resonance, still with continued personalities and individuals. Even if the main character of each chapter dies before his chapter is done.

The book taps this early potential, killing off an awesome main character after the first chapter. Focus is shifted to a slovenly, lazy, attention-deficient guy who works a tedious desk job. (Various scenes feel lifted directly from Office Space.)

Unfortunately, everything is downhill from there. Spoilers follow. I agree with goodreads reviewer j, who writes,
The Lives of Tao has all the exuberance of a passion project banged out in a rush during National Novel Writing Month. All of the polish too, unfortunately.

The self-centered, attention-deficient, idiotic new main character somehow, against serious odds (and against the repeated authorial mention of those odds, and their height and impossibility), survives a series of escalating escapades that frankly read like the latest installment in a summer blockbuster series (maybe the space-alien version of Fast/Furious?). He is not an endearing character. He repeatedly makes decisions which are stupid, and which he knows are bad; but his laziness wins out. He goes through a few chapters of training montage, during which we are subjected to endless whining and descriptions of how fat/lazy/slovenly he is; then we are told (not shown) that he is gradually improving. (He unbelievably survives against many highly-trained assassins, whose sole mistakes are Disney-villain-like sneering and gloating.)

The novel reads, especially towards the end, like an aspirational James Bond. I cannot help but get the feeling that the author over-identified with this unpleasant main character. Every reward seems oddly authorially self-gratifying. The book fails the Bechdel test, hard --- there are two female characters, both are described as attractive, intelligent, sexy, and well-dressed. They don't meet. They are both, somehow, love interests for this guy. (In fact, as soon as they appear in his life, he immediately starts debating which one he prefers... before either of them has given any sign of interest.)

I give up on trying to coherently group and process my dislike of the book. Here:

  • There were typos.
  • There was failure of verbs to agree with subjects. 
  • There was my pet peeve, immortal intelligent (wise, all-knowing) beings whose entire history, philosophy, and scientific development can be summarized in a few paragraphs of clichéd text, which does not stand up to even a cursory moment of inspection by my humble, time-bounded, finite mind. (Gross and unexamined assumptions abound; why are they unexamined, if the aliens have unlimited idle time to examine them?) 
  • Everyone was described all over the place in terms of their sleek muscles, even people who were fully-clothed and whose subtle abdominal muscles could not possibly have been visible. 
  • Time sped up when the main character was bored, and slowed down when he was interested in something, in a way completely uncorrelated with the progress of the action in the book. 
  • Crass, antiquated stereotypes about female roles were demonstrated, then held out for explicit examination by the main character, then shrugged off as unquestionably true facts clearly derived from Nature or God or Whatever. 
  • Every scene was described as containing something "even more dangerous than" the Supreme Ultimate Danger that was faced in the preceding scene. 
  • All emotional development was told and not shown. 
  • The authorial voice seemed to forget what stage of development the slob was at in any scene, as broad descriptions about how the slob "usually" eats crap are inserted even after descriptions of months of diet and exercise. 
  • Women say one thing, usually quite strongly, and men contradict them and make "better" choices, and the author's pen describes this in tones of approval for the men. 
  • The aliens are invisible, and this is a major plot point. Then, in the last scene, we find out that they sparkle at night. What? Why didn't we just use that back in scene 1, and skip the entire book's worth of drama and tension?

Some sentences were so enraging that I took the time to document my misgivings. Here are some of my annotations (context spared out of mercy):

  • Where is the editor responsible for approving this trite repetitive crap? No tension is being built here.
  • This directly contradicts what was described in the last scene.
  • no!!!
  • cliché
  • Bad writing. Is the author tiring at this point?
  • sexist enraging bullshit
  • how fucking convenient
  • Oh good, some sexism to lighten the mood.

I do not recommend this book, and I won't be reading the rest of the series. Yuck. I hate-read until the end because I held the hope that possibly, possibly, the main slob was going to get killed, and that this would redeem the cool idea underlying the book and justify sequels (which I hope would be more readable). I need to rinse the bad taste out of my brain now. This book read like the novelization of a summer blockbuster movie; this book would be better as a summer blockbuster movie, because that is a genre where gross stereotypes are (well, seem) more acceptable. I expect better from novels.

This post's theme word is colophon, "a note at the end of the book giving information about its production: font, paper, binding, printer, etc." The best writing in the entire volume was found in the colophon.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Shaun le mouton

Shaun le mouton is a clever little lamb,the clear bellwether of his flock and a clever manipulator of human and canine mental states. He mostly uses his powers for harmless pranks and playful indulgences, like television and (human) snacks for the sheep. His mortal enemies, the pigs, are individually clever and mean-spirited as a group, but somehow content (or incompetent enough) to stay in their human-designated pen and simply provide sniping laughter from the peanut gallery when his schemes go awry.

One day, his usually mild antics take a sinister turn when they cause the semi-abduction of the farmer, accompanied by a memory-obliterating concussion. The synergy of the displacement of mind and body results in the birth of a new person: the owner, sure, with his shearing skills intact, but with a zen-like lack of mental clutter, no memories of his past and no (apparent) desire to seek the mystery of his presence. The humans in this perverse, inverted world, all present a similar awareness of the present and lack of curiosity of the past, while the sheep (and, to a lesser extent, the other farm animals) have a more familiar human-like long-term memory and perpetual, low-level anxiety about plans to restore the farm, infiltrate the city, escape the dogcatcher, etc. As always, dogs are the go-between, exhibiting characteristics both partly-animal and partly-human.

The forbidding impossibilities of the outside world alternately form apparently-insurmountable barriers to Shaun et al.'s quest (passing as human, finding the farmer in a city of people) and are glossed as trivial (physics, probability, credulity, fashion). Yet somehow, this dissociative horror film wraps up all existential questions with a simple return to the status quo, all within a deceptively short 85 minutes, packed with basic questions of existence and purpose, as well as some pretty funny sight gags.

This reviewer also enjoyed the French localization. Sheep, of course, even in ominously-sentient-scheming form, do not speak (save "baaaaaaaaaa!", Shaun's spine-tingling catchphrase), but the human signs and written materials appeared in French, despite cultural indications that this was meant to be English countryside. Consider it another point chalked up for the weird, skew, not-quite-real universe of the film, contributing to the playful yet disquieting tone of the piece overall.

The movie was cute, and I am in a pompous mood. This is the result.

This post's theme word is barmecidal, "unreal," or "giving only an illusion of something." The animated clay figures present an allegory for the trials of real life, a barmecidal universe plagued by only a few of the true daily onslaught of existential challenges.