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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

TWO OUT OF FIVE QUILLS

Damsah’s balls, this was the most overrated book I’ve read in some time!

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I couldn’t bring myself to finish this book. I made it about a third of the way through, but seeing that I care nothing for any of the main characters, wasn’t seeing a very thorough exploration of the main economic theme of interest, and was pained by the clumsy writing style, I decided to spend my time more wisely.]

In the future, everyone will be incorporated at birth, with 100,000 shares of personal stock issued. Parents get 20 percent and the government gets 5 percent. A person is free to sell off the rest to interested investors/speculators in order to secure things like loans, housing, or an education. The authors propose that most people will quickly end up owning less than a majority of their own stock due to the need to sell themselves off to get the things in life they need or want.

It isn’t made very clear just what happens when you are majority owned by someone else. It would be like indentured servitude except that a bunch of people could own shares in you. Perhaps they act like a corporate board? That seems unlikely for the average person; who would bother? Whether you have to pay dividends or hand over a direct percentage of your salary is also unclear: each is implied at different points in the narrative.

As for the story itself, it’s just window dressing to explore the setting. The protagonist is a smarmy, arrogant, dispassionate former billionaire who suspends himself for several hundred years and awakens in this pro-corporate future as the only person who has not been incorporated (because of course, in the future, the world, nay, the entire Solar System, will have a unified society). This makes him valuable. Of course, he’s brilliant and handsome and daring. And has the heart of the Grinch, as evidenced by his pride in inventing the first workerless factory, something the authors also celebrate.

Many of the POSITIVE reviews of this first novel will point out that the characters are static, the writing clumsy, the point of view confused, and the pacing erratic. The book reads like an early draft. I agree with all of that.

I’ll add that it’s disappointing to see the sophomoric humor ladled out in this book referred to as “clever.” And the main character, Justin Cord, is a Mary Sue of the type I typically associate with fanfic. I wonder which one of the Kollin brothers gets to dress up as Cord at Halloween?

Some of the negative reviews point out that the book’s cardboard characters spend a lot of their time demolishing straw men in the form of superficial objections to the future utopia based on the perfection of the free-market and the wisdom of handing everything over to corporations. Let me put it this way; I found some of L. Neil Smith’s libertarian screeds more convincing (and entertaining). One reviewer said that it “occasionally” comes across like a Glen Beck rant, while another mentioned shades of Ayn Rand. Glen Beck I buy; I think the philosophy that Rand bludgeoned readers with probably had more depth to it.

The basic concept is interesting, but you can get a better understanding of the ramifications of personal incorporation by simply reading the blurb on the dust jacket and having a conversation with some intelligent friends than you will from reading this novel. Even with ham-handed expository scenes galore, the authors manage to skip over inconsistencies in their setting and its premise. Corporate greed contributes to the Great Collapse via VR, so of course the answer is to give more power to the corporations. I don’t know about you, but the thought of having public stock in myself at the mercy of automated stock-trading software programs and the whims of day-traders does not suggest a stable financial foundation for the future. Your personal worth would fluctuate wildly over the course of a single day. And that’s the future you would have; nobody can check or regulate this practice now–in a future where corporations are seen as benevolent, demi-god entities, regulation will be a four-letter word.

If you were foolish enough to sell off a majority in yourself, good luck being able to afford to buy back your own shares if you became successful. The more successful you become, the higher your stock would be valued, making it more costly to buy. The only way to get around that would be to conceal your real worth long enough to buy your shares. With so much incentive to lie up (as a company) and down (as an individual) about your real value, stock trading becomes just as much of a game of moving shares with little relation to actual worth as it is today. You can say that the market would punish corporations that conceal the truth. In addition to suggesting that many companies in today’s Fortune 500 are hardly paragons of virtue, I’d add that it would be pretty simple for a future corporation to buy up a majority stake in any potential whistle-blower and ship them off to Mercury or the Oort Cloud.

Toned down from the extremes presented here, some of these ideas might have potential. Selling private shares in yourself below a certain minority limit might have some traction. It would be somewhat similar to finding a patron or establishing a small base of supporters to whom you would be beholden. Selling a majority stake of yourself on a public market? I sure as stock wouldn’t try it.

I found the book entertaining at times, often on the unintentional comedy scale in terms of some of the phrasing and the “gee-whiz” factor attached to tech that’s been speculated about more convincingly elsewhere for years, but it fails as both a thought-provoking novel of ideas AND as a story with engaging characters. I gave it a two because it’s a first novel and everybody has to start somewhere.

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The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, is a first novel full of promise and brimming with storytelling talent. It also ends abruptly, with many loose ends dangling, and there remains no sign of a desperately needed sequel. As written, the story feels as though it needs several more lengthy novels to complete just the story arcs that are introduced here.

The novel is a fantasy, the story of the young man Kvothe (pronounced Quothe), as related by the (indeterminately) older Kvothe to a traveling Chronicler who has sought him out. Kvothe is a very deep, very rich character who is, it turns out, extraordinarily good at just about everything he puts his mind to, except for being humble, curbing his curiosity, or accepting insults. He’s a brilliant musician, a talented poet, a magical prodigy, an astonishing memorist, and later a fearsome swordsman. Moreover, everything he gets he has to earn through the sheer force of his will or the display of his unquestionable gifts. He by turns a traveling performer, a vagabond, a homeless orphan, a student at a magical university, a gifted musician, a criminal of sorts, and a hero at times.

It’s a testimony to Rothfuss’s clear compassion for his protagonist that in spite of his seemingly unending span of talents, Kvothe manages not to be annoying. In part his constant struggles against poverty and authority make him more sympathetic, while his haplessness in love makes him vulnerable. In addition, the commentary of the older Kvothe makes it clear that he holds himself accountable for having made terrible mistakes, even while he seems to have become but a pale reflection of the fiery youth whose story he is telling.

The quality of the writing is consistently high, balancing clever dialogue with some beautiful external descriptions and many well-worded insights into the heart and soul of things as far-ranging as silence and an artist’s devotion to his or her art. Though most of the characters other than Kvothe are sketched more than fully drawn, they are sketched cleanly and sharply enough to feel as though they could bear up to further scrutiny by the reader. I must confess that I am tired, tired, tired of literal colleges of magic in fantasy stories. I enjoyed the Arcanum in spite of the setting because the writing was good.

Most of all, the story is full of a love of storytelling itself. As you read, it is easy to imagine yourself sitting in the inn where the tale is being told by Kvothe, the hours drifting away unnoticed from afternoon to dusk to the dead of night as you follow along.

But, just as many nights of tale-swapping seem to drift to an uncertain conclusion, simply ending when the storytellers have become too tired to continue, so The Name of the Wind ends at a stopping point that is itself not particularly memorable or satisfying. It’s not even really a cliffhanger. Almost no problem or riddle of significance to Kvothe’s story is resolved when the last page is turned. It’s as though Mr. Rothfuss realized that he did not have a firmer ending in mind and so simply stopped. The evening has come to an end, everyone is tired and/or slightly drunk, the lights have been dimmed.

This would not have been quite so frustrating if the book hadn’t come out in 2007, with no sequel as of this posting.

So, The Name of the Wind feels incomplete as a book and that sensation of incompleteness cannot be assuaged by moving on to the next book in the series, for there is none at hand.  Yet I found the process of reading the novel a true pleasure.

It’s up to you to assess whether the promise of journeying on a winding road, with marvelous company, toward an eventual ending that may not or may not be somewhere around the corner, is worth the time and energy that this large novel will consume. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that it was. I will simply await what pages the wind blows to my door.

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Counting Heads by David Marusek received many rave reviews when it came out in 2005. I suspect these accolades are largely due to the easy, clever manner in which Marusek shows off a setting that dazzles with its speculative imagination.

There are clones, artificial intelligences, moderate transhumanism, and advanced biotech and nanotech on every page and lurking around every twist and turn in the plot. Marusek does a confident job of showing these elements integrated into daily life rather than lecturing about them, as many science fiction novels are prone to do. Even his coined terms, like seared and iterant, are evocative. Not everything Marusek presents hangs together in a convincing portrait of a functioning future society in my view, but that’s largely a matter of taste and I suspect few readers will be troubled.

However, the novel has more fundamental flaws that lessened my enjoyment. Marusek creates some interesting characters, but there are too many of them stuffed into the narrative for its length, leading to the story jumping from person to person so often that it becomes harder to connect with them as individuals or care about their fates.

Then there’s the plot. It is essentially very simple, but layered with digressions and surprises, hidden conspiracies and literal dei ex machina that serve as futuristic sound and fury. I would have nodded through this happily enough had there been a satisfying flow and pacing to the madcap rush of events. This was sorely lacking. Moreover, most of the twists that get introduced are left dangling with no resolution. The ending that emerges is the one that was predictable from the start, and the careening narrative sort of staggers to the finish.

So, as a piece of speculative writing, a collection of individually intriguing set pieces, and a gallery of odd characters, Counting Heads is in many ways a tour de force. As a coherent, strongly plotted piece of storytelling with compelling characters, it is on shakier ground.

Link to Counting Heads on Amazon

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The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming is a historical novel set in a turn-of-the-century America that is not quite our own. Edison, Tesla, and J.P. Morgan all make appearances, as does the fledgling New York City subway system, but the real stars of the story are a mechanic from Idaho and a princess/mathematical prodigy from the Kingdom of Toledo, which may or may not have ever existed.

The novel is interspersed with  footnoted historical narratives tracing the emergence of the titular kingdom, said narratives liberally blending fact and fiction in a strangely compelling fashion. The bulk of the story deals with the events set in motion when our young protagonist helps a dazed young woman in the street.

The scientific explanations for what has befallen the lady–which involves travel through time, between parallel worlds, and through space–are incoherent as anything other than fantasy cloaked as weird science, creating an odd juxtaposition with the more sober details offered up concerning the frontier, the subway, and even the pursuits of men such as Edison and Tesla. The romance at the center of the story feels implausible yet real, much like royal Toledo itself.

The Kingdom of Ohio is thus filled with odd narrative choices and odd characters that are all presented with sharp clarity (aside from the deus ex machina that triggers the novel). As for the conclusion, I can only say that if you liked the ending of Kubrick’s 2001, this will be equally satisfying. The result is as hard to classify as a platypus, but just as intriguing, and if you are in the mood for something unusual, an interesting read.

Link to The Kingdom of Ohio on Amazon

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Review: The Yard Dog

The Yard Dog by Sheldon Russell takes us to a unsung place that combines many familiar elements: the investigator guided more by conscience than common sense, Nazis, a POW camp, and the railroad. The result is intriguing, carried by a well-crafted setting, an appealing cast of misfit characters, and crackling dialogue, edgy as black coffee laced with moonshine.

Russell lays a struggling 1940s Oklahoma before us with the sharpness of a Walker Evans photograph. Leading the charge against windmills is one-armed railroad detective Hook Runyon, the yard dog of the title who lives in a caboose and who is determined to solve the mystery of his hobo friend’s death. WW II is drawing to a close and tensions are rising in the nearby Nazi POW camp.

The mystery itself builds rather awkwardly, with a haphazard revelation of clues that makes the plot seem to drift before it comes dashing to the rapid conclusion. And there are patches where the narrative voice explaining the thoughts in the characters’ heads rings a bit too hackneyed for my tastes. But these were just minor jolts on a ride that ran smoothly overall. Sequels are in store and I will take a look when they come around the bend.

Link to The Yard Dog on Amazon

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The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason is a collection of vignettes, scenes, pastiches, and contemplations that retell the events of the Odyssey and recast the character of Odysseus in many conflicting yet intertwined ways. You can pretend that these many thematic variations are lost fragments of the original oral epic, or you can simply interpret them as tightly crafted meditations in the imaginative, thought-provoking vein of Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges.

The text claims to be a novel for no reason that I can divine, as you can open the book to any “chapter” and begin reading without a sense of having lost touch with any larger narrative. This doesn’t diminish the pleasures of the book in the least for me.  Mason has reached deep into the heart of a classic story and emerged with something original and wonderfully strange.

Link to The Lost Books of the Odyssey at Amazon.

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