Friday, December 11, 2009

Stories of your life and others - Ted Chiang

Jo Walton reviewed this on Tor recently. I'm not usually wild about short stories, I often feel like I'm missing the point or that I don't quite have enough time to empathize with the characters. But her comments about Chiang being good at getting the story arc exactly right so that you know the things you need to know at exactly the point you need to know them made me hopeful that I wouldn't wind up feeling frustrated by these stories. And it was a good choice - they were all awesome.
What he does a lot of is looking at weird worldviews as if they were real. He asks a lot of "what if" questions. What if the world really worked like this? What if they really had built the Tower of Babylon? What would the engineering challenges have been? What would they have found? What would happen if someone found a simple and elegant proof that mathematics is inconsistent? What would happen to someone who didn't see time as linear?
The stories are fabulous. The ideas behind them were all interesting. I never had that horrible feeling that I had entirely missed the point of the story. The characters were engaging (I didn't really like the super-smart guy, but I think that was kind of the point) and the stories all made sense in a very satisfying way.
The one about the mathematician who discovered a basic inconsistency was awesome. It was as if she had woken up in the Matrix, except the Matrix wasn't being run by evil beings out to get us, it was just the way things are, always have been, and always will be. When she explains this to other people, the ones who understand it at the level she does get horribly upset and depressed, but only a very few are really capable of that. Everyone else mostly just ignores it. Either they have a theoretical understanding of the situation but can mostly just get on with their lives, or they simply cannot grasp that this in any way affects them. I found her reactions, her colleagues, and her husband to be fascinating.
This is exactly what a book of short stories should be. Totally engaging, satisfying the first time you read it, with enough depth to make you want to re-read.

The visual display of quantitative information - Edward R. Tufte

I was pointed towards this book by Information is Beautiful, a wonderful blog devoted to making beautiful, useful, and truthful info-graphics. Since this is something I also need to do professionally, I'm pretty fascinated.

The book was excellent. For one thing, Tufte practices as he preaches. The graphics and the text flow together beautifully. His points are all very well illustrated. There is lots of white space which makes it much easier to read everything. The examples are all clear, and pretty, and often entertaining (my favorite was the graph that was so cluttered, that when it was reproduced in another publication they managed to leave out the data without noticing).

I'd highly recommend this for anyone who ever has to put together a presentation. Even just as a book to read, it is quite entertaining. The horrible things people have to do and with graphs are just hilarious.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I heard about this book in several places, but it was this "Big Idea" write-up that really made me want to read it. Most of the reviews I had read focused on the plot - which seemed entirely ok but not something I was running out to go read. The Big Idea write-up was Cherie herself explaining how she had tweaked all the historical elements to ramp up the level of technology available, and the number of people living in Seattle around the time she wanted. Also not something that particularly intrigued me. I'm quite able to suspend disbelief, and I'm not a history geek, so this didn't grab me. What made me decide I really needed to read the book was the introductory quote she decided to use:
In this age of invention the science of arms has made great progress. In fact, the most remarkable inventions have been made since the prolonged wars of Europe in the early part of the century, and the short Italian campaign of France in 1859 served to illustrate how great a power the engines of destruction can exert.
From (and I am not making this up, this is the book’s full title): History of the Great Rebellion. From its commencement to its close, giving an account of its origin, The Secession of the Southern States, and the Formation of the Confederate Government, the concentration of the Military and Financial resources of the federal government, the development of its vast power, the raising, organizing, and equipping of the contending armies and navies; lucid, vivid, and accurate descriptions of battles and bombardments, sieges and surrender of forts, captured batteries, etc., etc.; the immense financial resources and comprehensive measures of the government, the enthusiasm and patriotic contributions of the people, together with sketches of the lives of all the eminent statesmen and military and naval commanders, with a full and complete index. From Official Sources. By Thomas P. Kettell.

Yup, it is the fact that she decided to use a quote where the title of the book was longer than the actual quote as the introductory quote for her novel. This was the point at which I realized I loved her sense of humour, which meant it was very likely I would love the book. And I did. I inhaled it practically in a single sitting. The two main characters (Briar and her son Zeke) are great. The folks they interact with are also great. She really got things right about how young teenagers make their decisions compared with how adults make decisions - and who they decide to trust, and why. The setting was a lot of fun. The zombies were awesome (which I wasn't expecting, I'm not really crazy about zombies). The supporting characters were pretty great. And the underlying mystery (why is Briar so absolutely convinced that her husband died during the disaster?) was very well handled. It was a great story and very well told.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Agyar - Steven Brust

I picked up Agyar after reading this review by Jo Walton.

What I love about this book is the way it is written. Jack has found an old typewriter and is simply writing to help pass the time while he waits for something to happen. He used to write a long time ago, but is very out of practice. And he is writing with a typewriter, so you are getting a totally unedited first draft. I'm really impressed that Brust managed to write something that feels very unpolished and fresh off the typewriter, and yet make it a story that moves along so nicely and with interesting character development. I think it must be really hard to do this style of thing, when too much action is happening, obviously the main character is not spending as much time in front of the typewriter. When he's sitting around bored, he has lots of time to write, but not nearly as much to say. Very much like a blog.

Spoilers ahead.

The thing which originally intrigued me about this book was the observation by Jo Walton and many of her commenters that this is the sort of book where you don't figure out quite what is going on until near the end, which means that the first time reading it is very special, and re-reading leads to a very different experience. I love this sort of thing, although unless it is done extremely well it is quite frustrating. Now possibly just knowing that there was something more going on made me pay extra attention. Or maybe, like one person commented, the cover of the book gives you a significant hint, but I figured out who & what Jack Agyar was after only a few pages.

He forgets the name of his date, his initial interaction with Jill isn't just slick, it is downright predatory. His awareness of the animals on the street as they walk to Jill's house, and his pause on the doorstep to be formally invited into the house. To me this explains things very nicely, and in a way that I find particularly appealing. I like being led to a conclusion, being given all the clues I need and having things made fairly obvious, without having my nose rubbed in it. If the book were to start with the line "Jack was a vampire" then all the extra details would just be annoying, sure he's world-weary, has supernatural senses, needs to be invited in. Instead you get to have a gradual realization that he isn't entirely normal, then not entirely human, and then you start to see some stereotypical vampiry things. Maybe Brust intends for people not to figure things out until later in the book, but to me he made things blatantly obvious in the first chapter. Which is totally fine by me. I don't think it would be especially fun to read this through without knowing that Jack is a vampire...but maybe that's because I haven't tried and won't get to.