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Books read in 2016

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Seveneves (2015)

by Neal Stephenson

This is another epic work by Stephenson, spanning almost 900 pages and over 5000 years. He picks up some themes I’ve seen in other books while including a lot of his standard fascination for technological detail, weaponry in particular. This is the story of the eradication of life as we know it on the planet Earth. Something called The Agent enters the Moon from one side and exits from the other, shattering it into seven large pieces and innumerable smaller ones. The Agent is a deus ex machina—at least for this first novel—and we cease thinking about its origins almost immediately to focus on the problems engendered by splitting the Moon.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Shift (2015)

by Hugh Howey

This is the second book in the Silo series, after Wool. In the first book, we were introduced to the people of the Silo, what we would learn at the very end is Silo 18 of 50. This book runs prior and then parallel to Wool, filling in the detail as to how mankind ended up in silos. It is the story of Donald, a freshman senator and his mentor, Thurman, an experience senator, a war hero and probably the most powerful man in America, president included. It is about 30 years in our future and nanomachines are being used by the rich and powerful to prolong their lives and health. They’re also being used by the military.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Dust (2015)

by Hugh Howey

This novel picks up where Shift left off, with Juliette having returned to Silo 18. She’s mayor, Lukas is head of IT, Donald is feeding Lukas and Juliette information in an effort to help them survive while Charlotte (Donald’s sister) continues to launch drones, trying to fly far enough to see the world beyond the Silo zone. Juliette is mayor, but her people are not really behind her, because she brings tidings in which the populace is not interested. Don’t change anything. Please. She does, though. Can’t seem to stop picking that scab. So she digs to the other silo, goes outside to sample air, discovers things, talks to Donald and Charlene on the radio to find out more, to hear how they’ve pieced things together while not trusting and misinterpreting and stumbling toward some form of truth. Silo 18 follows 17's lead, 18 flees to 17, then flees the silo area for good, making good on what Donald and Charlene saw. After so much misery, hope.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Hard to be a God (1974; 1973 in English)

by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Since the movie followed the book so faithfully, I’ll just include some of the text from my movie review.

The story is of an Earth-like planet on which a similar evolutionary track was followed by a very human-like race, but they never experienced a Renaissance. Their buildings are of poor quality, their sanitation is a horror and their hygiene is non-existent. The filth is omnipresent. You can almost smell this movie. It’s incredible how absolutely everything is covered with mud, food remnants and shit. The fog and rain soak everything. Everything is of primitive construction, people shit and piss and blow their pus-running noses everywhere. They spit, they taste things, they scratch, they pick and they flick.

Slaves have boards around their necks—almost everyone we see is a slave of some kind. People have eyes missing. Instead of a Renaissance, a Khmer Rouge-style revolution has occurred: all books and learning and instruments and advancement have been destroyed and their purveyors and inventors put to death. One form of execution we see is upending in a latrine.

We follow the story of Don Rumata, an Earthman sent ostensibly to study these people but who has taken up as a God among them. We follow him from his “palace”, interacting with the various psychotic locals, to a local market (?) where he meets up with a group of other Earthlings. It is not hard to imagine that the people find him to be a God—he is so much cleaner than the others, with metal greaves and vambraces pretty much the only thing they see of him.

Everything’s in a terrible state of disrepair and we see the only minds allowed to work involved in building new torture devices. The “bookworms” have all been hanged and left to rot on a gallows. The dialogue is also scattered, nonsensical, but enough sense can be distilled to follow a story. Everyone is near-mad, the actions unexplainable, the destruction they wreak on their environs chaotic. Random, wanton, childish. An unenlightened world of fools. It’s impossible to imagine how such a society survives, how it feeds itself, how it staves off disease. Every scene reflects their actions, implements and armor and chains and animals and fowl and bells pinned and tied and roped and chained everywhere, covered in filth and dripping water.

The Strugatsky brothers certainly delivered a tour de force in this novel, a novel of science-fictional despair rather than triumph. Please see the full movie review for more detail.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn (1970; 1982 in English)

by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

This is a whodunnit mystery starring Peter Glebsky as a Russian customs and counterfeit officer on vacation at a remote mountain cabin—somewhere in the Alps—with several other guests. He has traveled there alone and wishes to enjoy two weeks away from work. Classic setup.

The other guests are all odd in their own way: the exceedingly rich Mr. Morse and his ravishing wife, the illusionist Mr. Du Barnstoker and his androgynous and near-constantly be-sunglassed nibling Brun, Mr. Simonet, a world-renowned physicist and accomplished mountain climber, Mr. Hinckus, an odd, little and quiet attorney, as well as Olaf Andvarafors, a giant of a man in both size and personality.

As you can well imagine, bodies start to appear, alcohol is drunk in prodigious quantities, accusations are thrown, people disappear, odd clues are found and Glebsky is drawn ever farther from the peace and relaxation he’d sought. The Mafia becomes involved. Some of the guests turn out to be robots.

This is a story of first contact. As with Roadside Picnic, this alien contact does not lead to any satisfying conclusion for anyone. It is depicted as confusing and fruitless as such things usually are (i.e. when two cultures collide, if only briefly). In the light of not being able know for sure anything about anything, Glebsky muses that one unsatisfying “truth” is as good as any other, so one might as well choose the most satisfying one.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Roadside Picnic (1972; 1977 in English)

by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

This is the book on which director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. The world of the book has six Zones on it, areas tainted by the touch of alien contact. These areas have artifacts with fantastic properties but unknown use. The use to which humanity can put them may be incidental to their original purpose. For all intents and purposes, humanity has no chance of understanding what happened when the aliens visited—the gulf is far too great. The aliens are much too advanced for humanity to even begin to empathize or understand them.

We follow the story of Red Schuhart, a gifted stalker—someone who enters the Zones to pilfer artifacts—over several years, as he is hired and fired by a research company, as he goes to jail and is released to stalk again, as he tries to provide for his family, as he is trapped for his whole life in the whorl around the Zone in his town. The plot is different than the movie, though Red’s final mission into the zone roughly matches up with the movie’s plot: in the book, he seeks a wish-granting “golden sphere” whereas in the movie, it’s a room.

I love the Strugatsky brothers’ style. It’s very much cynical, with great characters, very much on a par with 60s and 70s-era science fiction in the the United States. This is a fantastic story and pairs extremely well with the film.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

by Jonathan Swift

This tale follows the life of gentleman adventurer Gulliver along several ocean voyages, each of which ends in shipwreck. The first takes him to Lilliput, where he is much, much bigger than everyone else. He describes his nine months there as he quickly learns their language and ingratiates himself to the emperor. He returns home with adequate riches in the form of miniature livestock that he sells to finance the family he left behind.

Soon after, he is on a boat again, stranding himself somewhere in the Pacific, on a large heretofore undiscovered continent in the Pacific Ocean called Brobdignag. On this continent, the residents are as much bigger than he as he was bigger than the Lilliputians. He tells of his rather mundane adventures there, but be assured that here, too, he befriends royalty and plants himself firmly at the top of the Brobdingnagian food-chain. He is swept off this continent by circumstance (and a bird) and is once again rescued on the open ocean.

This most unfortunate of sailors is somehow taken up on another crew. This ship is attacked by pirates and Gulliver is stranded near idea. He is picked up by the flying island of Laputa, which is composed nearly entirely of adamant and has an adamant mechanism to guide its motion. After spending some time among the royalty there, he becomes bored and wants to visit the lands below, named Balnibarbi. Again, Gulliver is feted by all and invited everywhere important. In the great university of Lagado he finds the reason the country is so dilapidated: the entirety of the people’s efforts have been perverted into non-rational and non-scientific pursuits that have no hope of accomplishing anything useful. There are only a few holdouts, whose homes and lands look normal and seem productive to Gulliver. A final side trip to Glubbdubdrib has him communing with the ghosts of all of the celebrities of the ages, thanks to the help of a great sorcerer. Gulliver again benefits from tremendous powers without any reason as to why he is singled out for the privilege.

After once again returning home to his wife and children—who must be teenagers by now—he cannot stay put and takes advantage of an offer to captain his own vessel. This is a capital idea if you want to commit insurance fraud, as the vessel is almost certain to capsize or otherwise fail to reach its destination with Gulliver aboard. It turns out that, this time, Gulliver’s crew is less than honorable and they hire criminals to replace expired members until he has no more control and they trap him in his cabin. After weeks, they resolve to rid themselves of him in a small dinghy. He of course fetches up on yet another previously undiscovered land, this one populated by Yahoos and Houyhnhnms. The Yahoos are life extremely vile humans with no civilizing characteristics. The Houyhnhnms are horses with pure rationality and no strife and perfect in every way. Gulliver, of course, lives with the Houyhnhnms, even though he looks just like a Yahoo, which they keep as work animals. He spends years with them, learning their language and their ways and resolving to never return to the debased culture whence he came. Alas, the Houyhnhnms decide to get rid of him because they cannot abide a Yahoo in their midst. He builds himself a canoe and—lo and behold—is rescued by a Portuguese ship. He is of two minds: he wants to be rescued, but he doesn’t want to spend any time in the company of Yahoos. He doesn’t even want to return to civilization, really. He abhors everything about his own kind and can no longer abide even the smell of them. This applies even to his family once he is returned to England, where he lives out the rest of his days as a recluse, unable to reintegrate with the Yahoos.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Blockade Billy (2010)

by Stephen King

This is a novella of just over 100 pages, so it’s a short story by King’s standards. It tells the story of 1950s major-league baseball, of the New Jersey Titans during one particular season when they needed a new catcher. These were the days when being a ball-player was just a job, not a chance at everlasting fame and wealth. With their starting catcher in jail and their backup injured beyond repair, the Titans found Billy Blakely. He’s quiet, talks to himself, repeats what others say and seems a bit…off. But he can catch, he gets along well with the prima-donna pitcher and he hits a lot better than expected. The story is told from the point of view of “Granny”, the manager of the Titans at the time. Granny is now in a home, bored out of his mind, and only to happy to tell this story, with its sad and bizarre ending, to a “Mr. King”.

Oblivion: Stories (2005)

by David Foster Wallace

This is a collection of short stories about various topics. Wallace’s strength is in his exquisitely detailed and precise prose. He tells his stories through the subconscious ramblings of his characters, over interwoven and using tens of pages to describe a split second. Two of the stories are almost novellas; others are very, very short. Many of them have the feel of books that he started and never quite finished. There’s also almost always that vague feeling of self-psychoanalysis, with characters exhibiting and working their way through insecurities that Wallace himself was known to have.

The details of the stories are almost always vaguely bizarre: one unnamed and un-narrated character climbs a building in a blow-up advertising suit (Mister Squishy), in another a thread of thought about the litigation associated with his (formerly) secret black-widow farm haunts a man whose mother’s botched plastic surgery makes her look constantly surprised, another is a school-hostage situation, as told by a daydreamer who nearly missed the whole thing but can recount the nano-details of daydream in a way that nearly supplants the “main” thread, another is the story of a man in psychoanalysis who reveals onion-skinned lies to eventually admit why he killed himself in a violent car accident, there is the man who is convinced he doesn’t snore, the harpy to whom he’s married who is convinced that he does, but both suffer from rare and strange disorders that mean they’re both right and wrong and, finally, there’s the final story, which is again set in the (at least semi-) bureaucratic world of advertising and market-analysis, which feels like a run at a chapter out of Infinite Jest.

The first story did as well, and made me want to read The Pale King, although I’d heard that that work was unfinished. Although dissatisfying in the sense that the narrative loop isn’t closed, even an unfinished David Foster Wallace story is a breathtaking jewel.[1]

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Psychopath Test (2011)

by Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson is a journalist with an eccentric beat. He seems to cover what takes his fancy and his fancy often turns to the oddest—though at least somewhat successful—members of society. In this one, he delves into the business of psychology and the nature of psychopaths.

He interviews various people who could be considered psychopaths, wonders whether he himself is one, takes a course with Bob Hare—world-famous as the inventor of the original psychopath checklist—to find out how to track and evaluate more professionally, then discovers that the power has gone to his head and perhaps psychopaths aren’t another species entirely—or near-to—and there is a bandwidth of human behavior, some of which falls within norms and other that doesn’t.

There are also big players involved in making sure that people think they’re sick. Society wants to benefit from the best minds, but also doesn’t want to be changed too much by them. It is often difficult to tell the difference between a purported psychopath and a very intellectually engaged person. Ronson realizes that the checklist approach often just takes the human element out of evaluation and ends up making bad things happen to otherwise normal people—or at least people who aren’t a danger to anyone.

At the end, he addresses the medical/psychiatric/pharmaceutical industry as a whole, seeing it for the capitalist engine of self-realization that it is. The engine gets people to participate because they’re concerned about their mental well-being, but the engine is only concerned about selling unneeded medicines and making a profit.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Finders, Keepers (2015)

by Stephen King

This is the sequel to Mr. Mercedes, reuniting the trio of detectives that formed at the end of that book: Holly, Jerome and Bill Hodges. They are a fun team to watch, typically interesting King characters. The story is good but feels a bit too well-oiled, especially if you’ve read a lot of Stephen King books. You know where it’s going and how it’s going to end. The bits of foreshadowing with Brady are eerie and quite well-done—much more like his best of old.

This story follows (yet another) avid fan (Morris) of a noir-mystery writer (think Roth and Updike with a bit of the reclusive Salinger) who feels betrayed by how his hero’s character was made to end. He’s such an avid fan that he breaks into the writer’s home with two cohorts in order to rob him of supposedly large amounts of cash. He discovers a final novel with his hero in it, unpublished for decades. Enraged, he kills the writer for the multiple betrayals of this fictional hero, getting away with the crime and stashing the novel away where he can read it in peace. Before he can read a single page, though, he goes on a bender and rapes a girl. He is caught and sentenced to decades in prison.

Fast-forward twenty years (or so) and Pete, a young guy in his last year of high school, discovers the book hidden in a trunk. He, too, is an avid fan of the writer and immediately recognizes the book for what it is. He also makes good use of the money stashed with the book to anonymously get his family through tough times. As you would expect, Morris is eventually paroled and comes looking for his book and his money, both of which are gone. He quickly ascertains what happened and pursues Pete. The detective trio are hot on his trail, trying to save Pete and solve the mystery.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

We (1921)

by Evgeny Zamyatin

How do I even begin to describe a novel of this breadth and imagination and density of idea and thought? Zamyatin packed in seemingly every single concept he could think of, presaging many other novelists who would come after, not least of whom are Orwell, Huxley, Dick and more. As with those other authors, his novel is set in a dystopian future, in a glass city completely shut off from nature and the non-calculable, the non-rational, the unpredictable, from anything that is not 100% statistically predictable. The lives of the citizens of this city run like clockwork, with no deviations allowed or—for the most part—even attempted.

Each person is assigned a letter and a number, the letter in some ways emotionally evocative of the kind of person, but only in an abstract way. The writing style is at-times florid and descriptive and sumptuous and rich—nearly every paragraph bears re-reading, nearly every sentence feels hand-crafted to contribute to the overarching concept of the book in myriad ways, from the spelling of words to multi-layered allusions to mixing in of wordplay in English and other languages. The translation is, I feel, quite sublime.

We follow the life of D-503, the main designer of the Integral, a majestic spaceship being built to seek the stars after 1000 years of the founding of the One State. We follow his turning from a cog in the machine to a rebel by I-330 and his subsequent falling in love with both her and O-90. As in novels that would follow—like 1984—he walks the path to revolution and is then pulled back by the One State through surgery (essentially lobotomy of emotion and imagination). Despite his subjugation, damage is done to the One State and its glass-walled city, nature once again impinging on it, disrupting its clean rationality. The leaders of the revolution are captured and tortured but do not relent, even in death. The revolution will continue, somehow.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Definitely Maybe (1977; 1978 in English)

by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

This is the story of a physics researcher, toiling alone on a problem, on the edge of a great discovery. The closer he gets to breaking through, to culminating his research, the more the universe seems to resist him. Distracting visitors drop by, his neighbor turns out to be much more than he’d appeared, then is murdered. The murder suspect is the researcher himself, with more visitors dropping in to threaten and cajole. He meets other researchers who, as they swap stories, all realize that they’ve been similarly stymied, that they each were gently nudged from their goal by an invisible and inexorable impasse.

In a vein similar to how capital-T Time resists change in 11/22/63, Stephen King’s novel about the Kennedy assassination, here it is the capital-U Universe that resists the plumbing of its deepest workings. They discover that its possible that the Universe tries to preserve a homeostatic balance between entropy and reasoning ability—not actively, but by a principle similar to Heisenberg’s about position and momentum. The cabal of scientists try to wrap their head around this concept and try to work out how they could even possibly continue to research it—or even harness it—if it is true. Because if it’s true, then it means that the Universe will resist investigation into proving this principle, by definition.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Hippopotamus: A Novel (1994)

by Stephen Fry

Edward is the “Hippo” and the star of this novel, so-called because of the combination of his girth and his penchant for long baths. He is a one-time up-and-coming poet reduced to a theater critic by waning talent, insufficient gumption and a teensy problem with alcohol. He is swept up in the affairs of his rich-and-famous family when they variously ask him to help discover the secret behind the seeming miraculous workings of his godson. He goes to the stately manor of his old friend, the child’s father and proceeds to surreptitiously investigate the matter, collecting information and impressions from the various other hangers-on. He slowly forms a theory, dispensing disputable wisdom and folly all the while, until the story culminates—as you would expect—in a revelatory conclusion at a large dinner party, in which the Hippo explains all and solves the mystery.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Making History (1997)

by Stephen Fry

This is the story of Michael Young, a doctoral student who is on the verge of delivering his oral presentation of an obscure bit of history involving Adolf Hitler and his mother. Through a series of coincidences, he meets Leo Zuckerman, a physicist who has invented a machine that can look back in time. Together, with a shared interest and passion for the era of the rise of Hitler, they set about modifying the machine to enable them to not only look but to make slight changes. The slight change they make is to pollute the water supply of Brunau (the town in which Hitler was born) with an experimental male contraceptive, preventing Hitler’s birth.

Part two begins with Michael awakening not in England but in Princeton in America in an alternate future engendered by his and Leo’s meddling. The alternate history is one even worse than the one with Hitler in it, a world dominated by a charming, brilliant anti-Semitic polyglot who not only survives WWII but leads Germany and his Nazi party to victory over the world. He exterminates all Jews using the Brunau water to sterilize the lot of them.

Michael is horrified and endeavors to locate Leo, who is also wracked with guilt and has, once again, developed a Temporal Imager. They once again modify the machine and concoct a plan to poison the Brunau water with a dead rat, preventing anyone from drinking the water and therefore the contraceptive in it. The timeline is restored, with Michael waking to a more familiar reality, albeit it with some slight changes again.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Revenge: A Novel (2003)

by Stephen Fry

This book is also known as The Stars’ Tennis Balls, which is why this book was so familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place why. I’d read it before but under the other title.

This is a modern re-telling of Dumas’s Count of Monte Christo, with Edward “Ned” Maddstone playing the main role. He is a good-looking, sporty, averagely intelligent and socially well-placed young man to whom everything has always come easily because no obstacles have ever been allowed to remain in his way. He is blissfully unaware of how good he has it. He has a lovely, lovely girlfriend. He has some friends, all of whom hate him very much, for various reasons.

These friends conspire to get him arrested, but a bad coincidence leads him into the hands of a secret service with every reason to eliminate him, as well. So, what starts off as an evil schoolboy prank that would have resulted in real but limited prison time or at least parole, turns instead to permanent banishment to a remote island of political prisoners. Ned is, to say the least, utterly out of his depth and bewildered beyond knowing. Nothing in his life has prepared him for this challenge, as he’s never had to surmount a real challenge himself.

At the island, he is psychologically re-programmed to believe that his previous life was a fiction produced by his madness. There he meets “Babe”, another prisoner, put there because he was nearly unbelievably dangerously talented and intelligent. He was a spy who’d outlived his usefulness. Babe takes Ned under his wing and teaches him everything he knows over the next twenty years. Babe helps him remember his past and helps him decipher what happened to him.

Babe dies of a heart attack and Ned takes the opportunity to escape the island. Armed with Babes bank account and knowledge (not the least of nine languages), he builds a software empire as Simon Cotter and plans his complex and nefarious revenge on those who wronged him. The manner of this revenge is intricate and exquisitely detailed and deliciously just. He does not stumble or deviate from his path, although he loses everything he’d perhaps hoped to gain, retreating to the island whence he came.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Numero Zero (2015)

by Umberto Eco

As ever with Eco, this is not just a novel, but a meta-book about the making of a book detailing the inner workings and construction of a non-partisan newspaper that will tell the “truth”. The newspaper is the brainchild of an eccentric tycoon Commendator Vimercate, but the purpose is that just the idea of the newspaper is to serve as a lever on shadowy figures of power, who will allow him into their inner sanctum in exchange for his shutting it down. In effect, the newspaper will never be and the book documenting its rise as well, but it has to be seen to have real potentiality in order for its effect to be served. Convoluted as ever, Eco’s prose and his ability to make this concept believable carry him a long way.

The story follows the tales of the various reporters from the various beats, going down the rabbit holes of one conspiracy after another (as usual for Eco, for whom the semiotics of conspiracy was a special passion). Though they should be telling the truth, the various journalists bandy about obviously fabricated stories that they purport get closer to the “truth” than true stories would. The main theory is proposed by Braggadocio (one of many puns) who doggedly pursues a story of Mussolini having survived the second World War and having pulled the levers of power long into the 1970s. As ever, there are enough bits of real history woven in so as to make it nearly impossible to tell what’s true and false, as Eco was delighted to have it. See Foucault’s Pendulum for an even more extravagant and interwoven and longer treatment of the same idea.

In the end, the main character Colonna has a book but no publisher and no interest because the newspaper about which he wrote never existed. Nor could he be sure to be able to use his story without attracting the attention of possibly existing shadowy forces that he fear might try to stop him. He takes his salary and slinks away.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Cyberiad (1965; 1974 in English)

by Stanislaw Lem

This is a collection of short stories qua science-fiction fairy tales about Trurl and Klapaucius, the “constructors”. They travel far and wide through the galaxy, meeting monarchs great and small, constructing wonderful robots and thinking machines and even clockwork facsimiles of entire universes.

Many of the stories elucidate physical principles in fantastical ways, like their “demon of the second kind” which is loosely related to Maxwell’s Demon. Another story discusses dragons as quantum-like creatures whose probability of existence can be controlled technologically to make them appear where the possibility of their presence would otherwise be vanishingly small. Other stories explore the limits of human knowledge in philosophical ways, as expressed through nearly ludicrously advanced technology, some of which beggars belief. Their construction skills know seemingly no bounds.

We see them start off as bitter rivals and grow to grudging compatriots who even come to one another’s rescue, when needed. At the beginning, they seem to be human, but hints dropped throughout the run of stories show them to be clockwork creations themselves.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Stars My Destination (1957)

by Alfred Bester

This is a classic, nearly the original, space opera, which, like We above, packs nearly every concept into it that would be explored by other authors over the next decades. But Alfred Bester was there first. We follow the life of Gully Foyle, a low-level technician on a space-freighter plying its trade from the Inner Planets to the Outer Satellites. Think The Expanse and you’ll be close enough. The economy of this construction is severely affected by the discovery of “jaunting” which is a sort of personal teleportation available only to the planet-bound.

Hi ship is attacked and the entire crew is left for dead. He survives for months until he is rescued/kidnapped by an asteroid cult that tattoos his face with a hideous tiger tattoo. Foyle is now driven purely by rage, with no allegiance to anyone but his ideation of revenge on the Presteign Corporation (think the globe-spanning corps of Gibson’s works). Foyle is captured in his quest, tortured, does not break, is imprisoned where he can’t jaunt, in a giant French subterranean fortress—evincing memories of Le Chateau D’If from The Count of Monte Christo. He and a female companion are the first to break free, but he abandons her in their flight, choosing his quest for revenge above their love.

He makes it to the Outer Satellites where he reinvents himself as Geoffrey Fourmyle, an extremely rich and profligate trader who has had his tattoo mostly removed—it appears only when he loses control and his face reddens. He reestablishes contact with many of the elites who were at his throat before, but they don’t recognize him, again inspiring echoes of Dumas-’s Monte Christo. Many characters plot and scheme with and against each other, changing allegiances as they all try to get a super-weapon in Foumyle/Foyle’s possession that would tip the balance of the coming open war between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites.

Fourmyle is trapped and captured but jaunts—space-jaunts, something heretofore thought impossible—to save himself, through sheer, desperate force of will. He discovers that he was able to do this before, when he saved himself at the beginning of the story, and we discover that the odd manifestations strewn throughout the book were also instantiations of him jaunting not just through space but through time folding part of the story Möbius-like, back upon itself. The book ends with Gully in sole possession of this powerful talent, on the verge of either revealing its secret to humanity so that it can conquer the stars or of building a cult of self based on it.

This is truly a foundational book in the sci-fi pantheon. I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it.

Das Letzte Theorem (2008) (de)

by Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl

I picked this up because of Clarke. This is the book he was working on shortly before he died. It’s a mess. It’s a barely science fiction. It’s a mishmash of about 2/3 biography about a vain, entitled young man from Sri Lanka named Ranjit Subramanian.

He’s a brilliant autodidact mathematician to whom nothing bad ever happens. Except when he’s kidnapped by pirates and held in captivity and tortured for years, but he turns that frown upside-down by discovering Fermat’s original solution to his own Theorem in his head. Rich people befriend him and give him money, a place to stay in their palaces. The prettiest, smartest girl in Sri Lanka marries him and gives up her career in AI to have his babies.

His best friend is an even bigger asshole, who rides the nepotism express to a powerful position in a self-elected, benign world government that rules via EMP technology that no-one else can discover. Happily, by the end of the book, China and Russia succumb to internal strife and the U.S. can reign as the sole remaining superpower.

Does Ranjit’s having found a better solution to Fermat’s theorem matter to the plot at all? No, it does not. Is everything absolutely perfect for this family, all the time, no matter what? Yes, yes it is. Is this unbelievably boring and does it feel like reading the fairy tale of a child? Yes. I used to blame the sappy bullshit, personal storylines of Stephen Baxter/Arthur Clarke collaborations on Baxter, but it’s now perfectly clear that this tripe stemmed from Clarke.

There is no narrative tension at all. Everything is black and white. All main characters are rich and powerful and infallible. Ranjit’s success is an utter mystery. It’s not clear what his skills are or why he keeps getting offered jobs of such high caliber. The book is rapidly coming to a close and the mental deficits of his son seem to be leading absolutely nowhere. His daughter is a perfect goddess. There are Olympics on the Moon. His daughter, of course, wins. Everyone in the book is well-off or filthy rich.

No-one suffers. Except for a whole family whom Ranjit befriended and who died on a pirate ship—in what seems like a wholly separate (and equally boring) novella. Of the children we’ve never heard anything again. Why was Ranjit imprisoned? Why was he not allowed to speak of his imprisonment? All plot lines hinted at and not pursued. Why is Gamini so revered and so successful? No idea. Nepotism? This is tripe. Why do we keep hearing about Myra’s trying to stay current in her research into AIs? Oh, because in the last 15 pages, she’s uploaded into a computer—and everybody’s totally cool with that. Ranjit, in fact, doesn’t seem fazed in the least.

Holy crap, this is tripe. It gets worse. We fast-forward 13,000 years. Ranjit has survived in cyberspace and humanity has excelled to such a degree that the Grand Galactics retire and hand over the reins to the universe to humanity. The end.

High-Rise: A Novel (1975)

by J.G. Ballard

This is another of Ballard’s novels that seems to rage against our technological society. In ways, it critiques the same facets of modern, western life as Heller’s Something Happened, which also finds nothing to love about modern society or the humans that people large swaths of it. The book documents the potential effects of living in a self-contained vertical village.

The story follows the life of a doctor Laing who, rather than setting up private practice, teaches at a local medical school. In this we already see his satisfaction with middling success rather than a stretching for limits. He is recently divorced, but not unhappily.

He is one of the first tenants of a gigantic new high-rise building, with 50 floors. He quickly begins to enjoy life in the building, leaving only for work. Things go sideways relatively quickly, with almost all residents avoiding outside contact, preferring to stay in the building, associating only with “their kind”. Their kind being people who live in what they consider to be an acceptable striation of the building’s floors.

The residents all drink quite a lot, fool around quite a lot and grow increasingly violent and confrontational. Allegiances change, tribes form and split and re-form. They adopt their own signals and tags and signs and language. Elevators and power break down, water is sporadic, toilets block up, food is scarce. The upper floors fare better than the lower. It doesn’t occur to anyone to leave. Not just the building’s halls and lobbies and apartments, but also the parking lot is littered with garbage and half-destroyed cars.

The story culminates in the triumph of a group of women over architect and self-crowned “king” of the building, Anthony Royal, as well as Richard Wilder, a burly ex-rugby player who fancied himself a believable pretender to the throne. All the while, Laing looks on and is satisfied with a kingdom over a tribe of two women further down the building.

The descriptions of destruction and degradation of societal norms invite comparisons to Hard to Be a God, Blindness and Lord of the Flies.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

One Human Minute (1971–1986)

by Stanislaw Lem

This is a short book containing three stories.

The first is a fake review of a non-existent book called One Human Minute. The book purports to give an impression of what occurs on Earth each minute by compiling meticulous statistics about every conceivable facet of human life. E.g. the number of deaths of various kinds, the number of births, copulations, illnesses, etc. He actually reviews several editions of this book, each of which extends the concept of the original.

The second is a foretelling of the development of 21st-century weapons, told as a history. This sounds contradictory, but actually works quite well. His idea is that the battlefield will be increasingly automated and miniaturized until the “war” moves entirely out of human hands and into the purely virtual. He’s not far wrong, actually, so far. All signs point to his predictions coming true.

The third is an interesting foray into cosmology, a discussion of how much luck had to do with the formation of life on Earth and the possible answers this provides to Fermi’s purported paradox. The notion of how the inexorable rotation of the galactic spiral arms were timed perfectly with the cycles of life on Earth is a tempting explanation and entirely plausible, at least the way he presents it as a “fake” scientist.

All three books were, as ever with Lem, very interesting and engaging and well-worth reading. He’s never predictable.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Something Happened (1974)

by Joseph Heller

This is a sad book about a sad man named Slocum, adrift in a life he’s sure he doesn’t feel is worth living. He works for a large corporation, he has a five-person family. He seems to be quite comfortable. He is well-taken-care-of by his company. He does not seem to do anything for them, but he claims that he does it well and that his work is appreciated, that he excels among his peers. He drinks, he cheats, he lies. He is not special. He is not good. He is not especially bad.

The story is told largely as an inner monologue from Slocum’s perspective. The first long section discusses his work life and the people there, with flashbacks to his first job—and his first flirtations and experiences with women. The second section focuses on his miserable and pointless home life, with a focus on his terrible, unsatisfying relationship with an ungrateful and difficult daughter. His “retarded” son is casually mentioned and discarded in the same thought, without any particular guilt on his part. Slocum seems to be more proud of his inability to lie to himself than ashamed of how he is as a person.

The plot doesn’t really go anywhere. Instead, it bounces from one topic to another, but always the same ones, the ones that engross Slocum, that have formed him as a person. There’s Virginia, the slutty 21-year–old he flirted heavily with at his first job (he was 17½) but with whom he never closed the deal. When he got back from the war, she’d killed herself (gas in a stove). There’s the young Jane at the office, whom he half-heartedly tries to bed, knowing she’s too young for him. There’s his son Derek, but he never dwells there long. He thinks about his wife a lot, and how much he likes to fuck her (his words). There’s his mistress of ten years, Penny, who’s the only one other than his wife who can satisfy him. There are the machinations at the office with Horace White and Black and Green and Brown and Phelps and hid terrible daughter and the drugs he thinks she’s doing and how she wants to steal his car and his pathetic son who thinks he’s tortured by everything and is more helpless than the retarded son and then there’s the speech at the convention in Puerto Rice that he’s never allowed to give. Everyone has a name but his nuclear-family members.

Slocum is mad, mentally unstable, driven around the bend by a country, a culture that is also mad. He cannot experience joy. He is honest with himself, brutally so. He is brutal with others. He does not let them know. He is the original American Psycho. He rambles, his internal monologues are heavily extemporaneous, tangential and parenthetical (sometimes a dozen pages or more).

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.


[1] As to Foster Wallace’s style, your mileage may vary: I’ve written the second paragraph in an approximation of his style. If that’s already too much for you, then don’t even bother picking up Oblivion.