Railhead = YA Hyperion + Culture

I’ve been a fan of Philip Reeve after reading his thrilling Mortal Engines quartet. Strictly speaking, Philip Reeve is a young adult SF/fantasy author, but I found this series to be more imaginative and darker than many other ‘adult’ novels. A lot of his other books have been for younger children, but when I heard that he’d written an out-and-out SF novel called Railhead, I had to check it out.

Railhead is an exciting amalgam of two of my favourite SF series: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (well, the first two books, anyway), and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. The Hyperion part stems from Railhead’s network of wormholes, connected by – of course – railways; plus the presence of godlike AIs with their own cryptic plans. The Culture part is represented by the slightly-smarter-than-human AI trains, with appropriately Banksian names, plus the well-written action, explosions, drones, and AI avatars. There’s also a dash of Dune and Hunger Games in there, as well.

Perhaps the most Banksian thing – and the most surprising to see in a young adult SF novel – is Railhead’s refreshingly modern treatment of gender norms and sexuality. Some characters are gay, and some characters regularly switch sexes, leading to offhanded passages like this:

She was gendered female, with a long, wise face, a blue dress, silver hair in a neat chignon.

and

Malik got a promotion. He got himself a husband, a house on Grand Central, a cat.

and

And, to cut the story short, it fell in love with him. And he fell in love with it. In the years that followed, Anais came to him again and again. Sometimes its interface was female, sometimes male. Sometimes it was neither. Different bodies, different faces, but he always knew it.

An unexpected but pleasant surprise!

On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)

Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:

  1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
  2. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  3. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
  4. The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
  5. The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
  6. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
  7. The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
  8. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:

Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.

(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)

Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.

For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:

People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.

One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.

… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].

“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.

“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.

“To get a good grade.”

“But why care about grades?”

“To get a job in investment banking.”

“But why get a job in investment banking?”

“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”

“But why be a hedge fund manager?”

“To make a lot of money.”

“But why make a lot of money?”

“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”

This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.

What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself). Continue reading “On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)”

Books of 2009

I haven’t talked much about the books I’ve read recently, and having finished a slew of them recently, I thought I’d take a look back at all the books I’ve read this year. On the whole, there aren’t as many as usual; work, magazines and periodicals, and notably Infinite Jest, really took their toll.

January

The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. A beautifully-written book about why people make creative works, how they should be compensated (with reference to gift-based economies in the past), and the sources of inspiration. There was a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert doing the rounds a few months ago about nurturing creativity; it’s pretty good, but if you want to know more about the subject, Lewis Hyde’s book is absolutely the place to go. I finished this book in a couple of weeks, I think.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. An incredible novel that I’ve written about previously and took five weeks of sustained effort to get through. I probably finished this in March.

April

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. When I bought this in June 2008, I got a dozen pages in and developed a headache from the second-person narration and shamefully abandoned the book. My second attempt was much more successful and I came to appreciate the literally mysterious structure. I’ll admit that a few of the chapters dragged for me, but the rest of the book more than made up for it.

May

Many of these books were read on a four day cruise to Cork, Ireland.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Much has been written about Taleb’s assertion that people fool themselves into thinking they can accurately predict and/or quantify the chances of extremely rare events occurring (e.g. stock market crashes). Several people have told me they liked the book but can’t stand it because Taleb is so full of himself; I think this is besides the point. He is full of himself, but that doesn’t stop the book from being interesting and entertaining.

I found it irritating that the Guardian condemned David Cameron for talking to Taleb, because of Taleb’s ‘wacky’ views (which were subsequently clarified by Taleb). I’m no die-hard Taleb fan myself – and I’m not a David Cameron fan either – but I think Taleb has things that politicians would be well-advised to hear, and scare-stories from the Guardian do no-one any good.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Much as I enjoyed Infinite Jest, like many others, I absolutely adore DFW’s essays and articles. His essay on television is incredibly foresighted for something written in 1993, although I would have been interested in his opinion of the HBO-style dramas of recent years; his coverage of the Illinois State Fair is wonderfully funny and characteristically introspective. Probably the best essay, which the book was named after, is about his trip on a cruise ship. I’d already read the essay online, but I was happy to re-read it, and I’m sure that I’ll never see the words ‘lapis lazuli’ in the same way ever again… (it also became obvious, from this book, that Neal Stephenson is a massive fan of DFW).

Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. What are the minds (or ‘mindsets’) that are required to succeed and flourish in the information-rich, hyper-competitive, fast-moving, etc, etc, world of the 21st century? Gardner attempts to explain here. This was an interesting book, but not much stuck with me apart from the later sections on the ‘respectful’ mind.

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood. If you’ve ever heard me talking about Margaret Atwood, it is normally about one of two subjects. Firstly, the fact that British people think she’s either British or American. Secondly, the fact that she strenously denies that Oryx and Crake (and the new The Year of the Flood) are not science fiction – which they plainly are – while simultaneously decrying science fiction. Having said that, I have actually read and enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and since I have a real interest in economics and history these days, no amount of science-fiction denial was going to get in my way here. Payback was a good look at the history of debt and the way in which it’s been treated and contorted over the centuries, although it ends on a bizarrely hard-line note (which is probably not surprising given the eco-apocalyptic nature of her novels, but there you go). Continue reading “Books of 2009”

Mass Effect

I was so impressed with the first two minutes of Mass Effect, the new sci-fi RPG for the Xbox 360, that I had to play through it twice and then show everyone at work. While it’s essentially nothing but an extended cutscene, it’s a beautiful, well-directed, well-paced and astonishingly atmospheric introduction to the game. If you have a friend who owns Mass Effect, make an effort to have them show you it. You get more out of it if you customise your avatar’s appearance, as well.

I finished Mass Effect a couple of hours ago – it took me a little over fifteen hours to complete, playing about an hour per day for two weeks, and while those fifteen hours obviously weren’t as good as the intro, I’m very pleased I bought the game. It’s not without its substantial flaw, but I respect the efforts the designers put into creating a wholly original fictional world, and populating it with interesting characters and technology. Writing a science fiction game is tricky – the players will be very familiar with the genre, so you have to avoid stereotypical SF tropes while also not completely confusing those who aren’t so familiar.

(As an aside, I read somewhere that the space opera brand of science fiction has become very unfashionable, hence the reason why it’s vanished from TV and films. I would disagree – it’s as popular as it ever was, it’s just migrated to videogames, where it rules the roost. Halo and Mass Effect serve to demonstrate its enduring popularity.)

Mass Effect’s gameplay is split up into quests. There’s the main quest, which I spent around half my time on, and unsurprisingly it had the more unique and fun gameplay compared to the dozens of side quests which are more or less independent of the main story. I did around a third of the side quests, maybe more, but I gave up after I realised that I simply wasn’t enjoying them. There was one quest in particular which put me off; it had an exciting backstory, and you had to clear up three bases full of robot soldiers. Sounded lots of fun.

I travelled over to the first base and killed the soldiers. It was fairly diverting, but nothing special. When I entered the second base, I thought, ‘How helpful that everyone’s standing in the same place as before’. In fact, the base was identical to the first one, except there were some more soldiers. I felt a bit disgusted by this, and of course the third base was exactly the same, but with some random barriers thrown in. Instead of making the quest more interesting, however, the barriers just made it more tedious. At this point I gave up on doing side quests because they were clearly designed just to consume time rather than actually be entertaining.

Compared to the rest of the game though, this is a minor complaint that can be easily fixed in the sequel. It’s far outweighed by the marvellous story, dialogue and pacing that make me very glad I bought an Xbox 360.

Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon’s new novel, Gentlemen of the Road, was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, echoing the lurid and massively popular penny dreadfuls from the turn of the (twentieth) century. Its working title was originally ‘Jews with Swords’ which evokes all sorts of strange images, while the story itself sees a duo of Jewish ‘gentlemen of the road’ – that is, itinerant rogues – embark on an epic adventure in the Kingdom of Khazaria in the 10th century. They’re conmen, thieves, hard-bitten and cynical – but of course, like all true adventurers, they’ve got hearts of gold and are immensely loyal to each other.

I’m a big fan of Chabon’s – I enjoyed reading Summerland, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and I tend to buy his books as soon as they come out. I was a little disappointed with Gentlemen of the Road though. Partly this was because of its serial format, which doesn’t work well when stitched into a novel, and partly its because the adventure, for all its wit and colour, was not all that exciting. It felt oddly cramped, at odds with Chabon’s love of run-on sentences and numerous asides, which often obscured the action.

The world itself, 10th century Eastern Europe/Middle East, with Jews pressed up against Muslim Caliphates, Christian Franks and vicious white raiders from the north, pressed home the point that things were really quite interesting back then, and there are ways for different religions to get along – to an extent. So if you liked Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, you’ll like Gentlemen of the Road.

I had high expectations of this novel – too high, perhaps – but despite my disappointment I don’t regret buying it. It’s an entertaining read, one that’s best consumed at a measured pace, as opposed to my frantic reading. I picked it up on discount for £5 in a handsome hardback format, but I would suggest reading it online for free instead. You can do this without any guilt whatsoever, because it’s still on the New York Times Magazine website. Enjoy!

Ratatouille and Mario and Sonic

A brief roundup of things I have watched, read and played over the Christmas period:

Ratatouille

Ratatouille is in contention for my ‘most rewatchable movie’ award. This has previously been the sole province of Master and Commander, another movie that doesn’t adhere to normal traditions of pacing and plotting. I’ve watched Ratatouille about four times now (at the theatre, on the plane, on DVD) and I’m not in any danger of getting tired of it – or its wonderful song, Le Festin.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympics (Wii)

I lent my Wii to a friend using it for a church teen videogames night, and he asked me to recommend a new party game, under the assumption that Wii Sports probably wouldn’t provide the same draw as it did last year. Mario and Sonic at the Olympics was what he ended up getting, and he kindly gave me the game afterwards.

It’s not a bad four player game, I suppose, but I can’t say I enjoy it much. It’s a compilation of sports minigames, of course, which needn’t be a bad thing – I quite liked Wario Ware, for example, and Rayman Raving Rabbids was entertaining as well. The problem with Mario and Sonic is that the minigames are surprisingly difficult to play well. Each minigame has anywhere between four and twelve pages of instructions, at the end of which you’re left scratching your head wondering what buttons you’re supposed to press, and in which order to do them in. And when you finally get around to playing the minigames, you find that they are either trivially easy, or frustratingly obtuse.

Trivially easy: 100m dash, 100m swimming, 110 hurdles, shooting, fencing. These all involve either shaking the controllers very fast, or pointing at things.

Frustratingly obtuse: Javelin, triple-jump, long jump. None of these are supposed to be hard, but despite reading the instructions several times and pressing the buttons at the right times, we just couldn’t figure it out. Four Oxbridge graduates couldn’t work out how to throw the javelin, and it took me literally a dozen tries to realise what I was doing wrong.

Some games are entertaining; archery, trampolining, rowing… that’s about it. And you can unlock some interesting ‘Dream Events’ which are basically Mario or Sonic-related games (i.e. nothing to do with ‘real’ sports). After a couple of hours of play, I’ve managed to unlock one, and I don’t think I have the patience to get the other three. I suspect it will be on eBay before long.

Tomorrow: Puzzle Quest, and an entire new novel by a bestselling author for free – legally!

Municipal Darwinism

Unsentimental. That’s what the Mortal Engines Quartet is.

Children’s fiction – in particular, children’s fantasy – is so strong nowadays that it’s hardly necessary to say that a book is adventurous, imaginative or exhilarating. They’re all adventurous, they’re all imaginative, they’re all exhilarating. And they’re all plenty good enough for adults to read as well.

Amid this wealth of excellence, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet stands out for a reason that others may not want to emulate: it’s uniquely unsentimental. His four books, set a world in which mobile cities rumble across the land on, chasing and consuming each other in a cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, are the most willfully unsentimental novels I have ever read. Villains do not get their just desserts; heroes are regularly punished for their virtues; and pretty much everyone is flawed in some nasty way.

Even Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy seems like Disneyland in comparison. This isn’t because the Mortal Engines Quartet is more depressing or more vicious – it isn’t. Instead, whereas Pullman’s novels are dark and serious affair all around, Reeve switches between carefree humour to awful tragedy so fast (and so often) that you just have no time to prepare yourself from general unfairness of the universe.

Enough about the unsentimentality for now – what about the story?

Mortal Engines, the first book in the series, begins with what is widely acknowledged as one of the best first lines in fantasy, ever:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

Immediately, you know that this is no normal children’s fantasy, and what comes next is a dazzling explosion of imagination; after the Sixty Minute War devastated most of world, cities began to re-engineer themselves so that they could move across the barren land in order to prey on smaller, ‘static’ settlements. Soon enough, every town, village, suburb and city was on the move, gobbling each other up in a great cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’. London is now composed of several tiers, with St. Paul’s Cathedral relocated to the very top, and other streets arranged under it. Continue reading “Municipal Darwinism”

How It Ends

If you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, you’ll may remember the music. It was almost perfect for the movie – a wistful but sometimes happy mix of instrumental mariachi-esque and romantic music. It reminded me of a mix between Sufjan Stevens and Yann Tiersen, but in a good way (actually, Sufjan Stevens did have a couple of tracks in the movie). Alongside personal recommendations, movies and TV shows are where I hear new music from, so I sought out the soundtrack.

It turned out that practically all of the music was made by one band, DeVotchKa, who’ve been around for a few years now. They’ve been under the radar, but the success of Little Miss Sunshine has given them a much larger stage. Even so, when I went to a gig they put on at 93 Feet East in London, while it might have been pretty full, it certainly wasn’t completely full.

Now, I don’t go to a lot of concerts, so perhaps my bar is set a bit low, but then again I’ve seen a few acts who are supposed to be very good live, like Arcade Fire and the Kaiser Chiefs; I’ve been in front of the front row at Scissor Sisters; and I’ve been at smaller gigs with bands like Rilo Kiley. None of them even touched DeVotchKa.

I knew that it was going to be good from the moment they walked on stage. The reason is because this happened at the exact minute they were supposed to be playing. This might sound completely ridiculous, but I don’t think anyone likes having to wait around half an hour for things to get started. You might say that it’s the music that matters, not whether they turn up on time. I agree, but wouldn’t you like it if you could have both? Their performing on time showed that they were professional, and they had respect for their audience.

Professional doesn’t have to mean overplanned or deliberate. It doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous. What it means is that you are very, very good at what you do, and in this case, the band was very, very good at playing music; almost certainly classically trained. Tom Hagerman on the piano, accordion and violin looked nothing else than a city lawyer who’d inadvertently stumbled into Brick Lane, and yet he played with real verve and energy. Jeanie Schroder on the sousaphone and double bass, and Shawn King on the drums and trumpet were a little less visible but no less talented.

Besides being the band’s lead singer, Nick Urata plays the trumpet, piano, bouzouki and (this is the best bit) the theremin. Nick has a strange, haunting, romantic voice that he really belts out – I’m not really sure how he doesn’t lose his voice more often, really. He also has a wonderful stage presence, throwing himself into his singing, swaying around and regularly swigging from a bottle of wine.

The band played with genuine heart, and this led to an audience that frequently broke out into clapping and singing along. Granted, this is easier to do when your audience is only 150 rather than 1500, but it didn’t need any encouragement at all. More surprisingly, apparently this happens at every single concert they do. And in case you think I was simply starstruck, here’s a second opinion from someone who’s been to far more gigs than myself.

What am I trying to say here? It’s not just that I happen to like DeVotchKa a lot, and that they’re great at playing live. It’s that turning up an hour late, or storming off after three songs, or being completely disaffected and distanced – none of these things make you a better band. They don’t make you play better music. You might scoff at this, but it can’t be denied that crazy, self-destructive bands get all the press, and that this behaviour is in part tolerated because ‘it makes better music’.

Why not have both? Why not have great music, and a band that is professional and plays with heart? Or are we more interested in their foolish antics than what they’re supposed to do?

The Sony Reader: An Illustrated Primer

The device that set off such a furore on this blog about The Death of Publishers and also resulted in a feature in the Bookseller has finally arrived in my hands. While I’ve only been using it for a week, I think it would be useful to share some first impressions of the Sony Reader – after all, if it’s supposed to herald the downfall of an industry, there’s no time to lose!

The Sony Reader in perspective

The first thing you notice about the Sony Reader is that it’s unexpectedly small. I’d seen photos of it, and I was imagining something around the size of a hardback, what with the screen that dominates the device, but the Reader is actually shorter than a standard paperback, and a lot thinner. I suspect that one of Sony’s design priorities was making it smaller than a normal book.

Svelte

In fact, when you close the ‘cover’ of the Reader, it becomes even more svelte and diminutive, more like a Moleskine notebook than an actual novel. This is a device that won’t embarrass you if you read it on the tube, and it’ll fit into practically any bag. So far, so good.

Real Ink vs. E-Ink

Can the Reader measure up to real ink? No.

The contrast on the Reader’s E-Ink display is just not comparable to any book; it’s more like dark grey on light grey than black and white. It’s harder to read in low light, and if you have poor eyesight, it probably won’t be very comfortable. Despite this, it’s still perfectly acceptable for most people. I’ve shown the Reader to a few friends and they’ve all declared that it looks fine to them. The issue isn’t that text on the Reader is bad – it’s that real ink is basically perfect. Continue reading “The Sony Reader: An Illustrated Primer”

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

One of my favourite authors is Ted Chiang. I’m not entirely sure what Ted does with his time, since over the course of seventeen years, he’s written fewer than a dozen short stories, the sum of which would easily fit into a typical novel. Of course, this has nothing to do with the quality of his writing, which contains such beautifully-wrought ideas and language that they remind me of Borges and Murakami put together.

Some of the stories have more of a scientific spin than others, and it probably eases the cognitive dissonance of journalists to call him a sci-fi writer, but if that were the case, it would only be so much as Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy could be described as the same; in other words, they’ve all written sci-fi, but not as most people would know it.

Until this year, Ted had published only had one collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. This was a sad state of affairs for his fans, who were left hanging following his 2001 short story ‘Hell is the Absence of God’, which won pretty much every award available.

This year, a new collection finally emerged, called The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Published by Subterranean Press, a specialist in limited-run books, the collection is Ted’s first ‘novel’. At sixty pages, I would disagree with that classification, but all the same, it was a new story. Knowing exactly what it had in its hands, Subterranean sold two versions of the novel; one was a cloth-bound hardback trade edition, which is now sold out, and the other was a limited edition edition of 200 copies, at $45.

I mulled over which edition to buy for a little while, but eventually my desire to own a piece of true Chiang memorabilia – and the weak dollar – conspired to make me order the limited edition. It arrived a few weeks ago, and I feel I made the right choice.

The book itself is a series of four intertwined stories set in medieval Baghdad, about the nature of fate and our acceptance of it. While it’s arguably a sci-fi novel, given that it concerns itself with time-travel, most agree that it’s more in the vein of Arabian Nights than anything else. I liken it to a perfectly crafted gourmet meal; small in size, yet containing a real variety of subtle flavours.

You might think that buying a sixty page book for $45 is slightly out of character for someone who believes in The Death of Publishers and the inexorable rise of free or cheap eBooks – but I don’t think this is contradictory. If my copy of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate was the same as a bog-standard paperback, I would have been disappointed. The reason why I spent $45 was to get something special – and that’s what I received.

http://www.flickr.com/slideShow/index.gne?user_id=adrianhon&set_id=72157601328210033

The book comes bound in red leather, with a beautifully drawn dust jacket. The paper is of a high quality and feels like parchment. My copy is signed and numbered 24 out of 200. There are several lavish full-page illustrations, and dotted throughout are a number of smaller drawings that reflect details in the stories. It feels as if the physical book was designed hand-in-hand with the author, and the resulting product is that of a work of art. I’m going to hold on to this book for a long time, and unlike my other books, I’m not about to trade or sell it online. So why wouldn’t I spend $45 on it?

Publishers are beginning to catch on to this trend. Authors that have a particularly loyal following, such as JRR Tolkein and Haruki Murakami, are having their novels republished in increasingly elaborate editions. While at Borders today, I saw a £100 gilt-edged, leather-bound edition of Lord of the Rings, and a £30 cloth-bound edition of After Dark, with a hard case. I see both editions as being a rip-off in the sense that the quality of the physical product is in no way commensurate with the price they’re being sold at – especially when The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate is a mere £23 – but ultimately it shows that people are not merely buying these books for the words inside, but for the physical objects themselves. Continue reading “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”