What seems insane to one generation

That Aziz Ansari wrote a book is no surprise.  The comedian is at that stage of his career where a book is almost required. That he wrote about contemporary romance is also no great shock as his current series is about life and relationships. What is unique is how he went about doing it.

Instead of simply sharing his own romantic misadventures as most comedians would have, he partnered with a sociologist to conduct a thoughtful, in-depth study of the evolution of romance and relationships in the 20th century and the changes and challenges unique to the current age. The result, Modern Romance, is a fascinating blend of humor and science, with Ansari’s wit serving as a vehicle to deliver factual information.

Admittedly, dating and relationships aren’t front-and-center in my life–having been blissfully married for some time now–but I did, in fact, meet my wife via an online dating site, a fact made more interesting because…

between 2005 and 2012 more than one third of couples who got married in the United States met through an online dating site.

We fall neatly into that bucket, so the validation that we are painfully normal in that respect was nice to hear. Less nice to hear were Ansari’s comments directed at people like me:

Okay, why are you even reading this book about relationships? So you can see what mistakes sad, lonely people are making to cause them to have so much shittier lives than you?

Point taken, but I have a number of friends on the dating scene now, and I found this window into their challenges fascinating.

Ansari provides a cogent analysis of how expectations have changed from generation to generation, driven largely by the shift of women into the workforce, but especially eye-opening are the sections on how recent technology shapes relationships–things like texting, Tinder, and sexting that didn’t exist in any meaningful way even ten years ago (when I started my own journey into online dating) and are now seen as integral components of romantic life.

He made me realize that my attitude towards these things have been shaped more by ignorance and prejudice than a realistic assessment of how they can (and arguably should) fit into a relationship.

For example, at the end of the section on sexting, Ansari shares one woman’s explanation about how she feels about sexting (and the attendant risks) that concludes:

“So when I sext with my boyfriend…. it’s also my little way of reassuring myself that I decide what to do with my body, and I get to decide which risky behaviors are worth taking.”

Ansari follows that by suggesting that…

For the generation that grew up in a smartphone culture, sexting has become a common step in the journey toward becoming sexually active. Along with a first kiss, now, at some point, there is often a first sext…. And, as we’ve seen with other aspects of modern romance, what seems insane to one generation often ends up being the norm of the next.

Where initially, I would have said he and the woman he quoted were being foolish or, to use his own words, insane, by the end of Modern Romance, I had to grudgingly concede the point.

Seeing how profoundly dating and relationships have changed in the last twenty years (let alone fifty years) forces me to face the fact that my children’s romantic lives will likely be far outside my own experience (How soon is too soon to jack your brain directly into your significant other’s to share your senses? Is virtual reality sex with someone else cheating?).  So while Modern Romance is a little late to help me with my own romantic life–and it turned out just fine, thank you very much–it gave me some much needed perspective for when my children turn thirty and I give them permission to date.

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Burning holes in the pockets they wished they had

Sometimes, you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover.  I offer up Day Keene’s Home is the Sailor as today’s exhibit:

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See that gorgeous cover by R. B. Farrell and Gregory Manchess? That’s what you get. The book delivers exactly what that image and those words promise.  If that sort of hard-boiled, film noir, pulp goodness doesn’t appeal, just walk on by.

Fortunately, this gift from a good friend was right on the money. I couldn’t eat this meal every day, but it was a tasty snack filled with lines like…

Her eyes were gray and smoky, like ashes over a wood fire. They made me feel like a fool.

and…

I found one [a turnoff] a quarter mile down the road and followed it to the crest of a high bluff overlooking the sea, with a silver moon laying a course along the thirty-fourth parallel for China.

Or this description of a street scene in Mexico…

Most of the kids were a little high, their money burning holes in the pockets they wished they had, buying junk in the cheap stores, having their pictures taken on burros. Mixed in with the crowd were a few uniformed cops and a scattering of Mexican streetwalkers. With something else to sell. The cops kept their eyes on the streetwalkers. The streetwalkers kept their eyes on the sailors. The sailors kept their eyes on the streetwalkers. Everybody happy.

So if you’re interested in seeing a retired Swedish sailor blow his chance to go home to Hibbing, find a nice girl, and settle down, instead becoming a murderer and outlaw  because of a woman who is as much trouble as she is beautiful, pick up Home is the Sailor.

And next time I’m in this mood, I’ll check out some more of the fine catalog of Hard Case Crime.

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It ruthlessly steals your essential things

I’m not sure where I first heard of Jonathan Carroll, but I’d guess that he was mentioned by some other author I respected (probably Neil Gaiman). I picked up The Land of Laughs and was thrilled by my first encounter with his unique brand of magical realism (or is it magical surrealism?) and his deeply engaging characters. Each of his works touched me in different ways: The Land of Laughs enthralled and infuriated me (I threw it across the room at one point); Bones of the Moon delivered a fantastical world rich in whimsy and sorrow; A Child Across the Sky was creepy and dark and began my lifelong interest in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

I developed a ritual for each new book. I would set it on a shelf and hold off reading it until I had a full day or more to myself. Then I would make coffee, put on the Inspector Morse soundtrack (a mix of classical, opera, and incidental music that set a quiet, haunting mood), and read until I finished the novel–usually late that night with the coffee replaced with a beer.

The last of his books I read was Glass Soup in 2005.  I missed 2008’s The Ghost in Love, and then there was a long dry spell until his most recent, Bathing the Lion (2014) that I recently finished.

I found myself once again enthralled with his vividly drawn characters and the almost mystical way Carroll describes the ordinary magic of love beginning…

In the beginning of their relationship, both women proceeded as if they had entered a very dark room and were sliding their hands hesitantly up and down all the walls, feeling for a light switch while at the same time afraid they might touch something sharp or dangerous.

…ending…

…her life had capsized and suddenly she was hanging on to a piece of shipwreck in the middle of a vast and dangerous morning.

…and left behind…

…those nice trips, nice meals, and nice years when they had been genuinely happy together were like Confederate Army money now: they looked pretty but were worthless.

But as I read on, the joy wore off. Perhaps it’s because I read the novel in a more ordinary fashion. The first half, I devoured in large chunks as I traveled, but the last half came in small bites before going to sleep at night–pretty much how I do most of my reading these days. Perhaps, Carroll is not as strong a writer as he used to be, although my reaction to the first half suggests that’s not true.  More likely, I’m at a different point in my life and his writing doesn’t speak to me the way it used to.

Carroll writes mostly of relationships and couples, love passionate, romantic, and companionate. He writes of experiencing life in a world of rich senses, exotic travel, fine foods, and finer moments. He blends it all with quirky metaphysics and surreal action that takes his characters to emotional extremes. They are haunting and beautiful tales that spoke to me when I was younger, when I traveled, and when I wrestled with relationships.

Now I am older, married, and have two young children. Travel, exotic locations, free time to pursue fine cuisine or leisure activities are not parts of my life. The world that Carroll describes doesn’t resonate the same way. Magic in my life comes in the form of my children, who bring wonder, imagination, and their own unique brand of surrealism to every day. I hadn’t realized until now, but children feature in only limited ways in Carroll’s books–frequently as McGuffins or pawns or angels and demons in disguise, rarely as real characters.

So while I enjoyed Bathing the Lion, there was a melancholy aspect to that enjoyment, a nostalgia for the way he used to sweep me away, that left me feeling slightly dissatisfied at the end. Ironically, there’s a lovely line in the novel about time that speaks to this feeling:

Time doesn’t fly, it steals. Like some skilled pickpocket or magician, it gets you to look the other way and when you do, it ruthlessly steals your essential things—memories, great moments that end much too soon, the lives of those you love.

It seems time may have stolen my deeper connection to Carroll’s work, leaving only ordinary enjoyment in its place.

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A bleeding metaphor with all its bones broken

I’ve always been more of a fantasy reader than a science fiction reader.  However, in recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to the over-the-top contemporary space opera by the likes of Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books.  But head of the pack is Peter Watts.

I’ve described his novel Blindsight  to friends as  what you’d get if Cormac McCarthy and Iain Banks collaborated on Guardians of the Galaxy.  It’s a tale of first contact, damaged yet hyper-functioning humans, space vampires, and the future of the human race packed with searing prose and delivering a dizzying and ultimately bleak analysis of the evolution, function, and value of consciousness.

I recently finished the sequel, Echopraxia. Once again, Watts delivers a fast-paced, meticulously-researched, outrageous adventure. This expedition sees an old soldier, an unmodified human biologist, a desperately-obsessed pilot, a pseudo-religious hive mind, their translator, and the obligatory space vampire encountering an alien artifact that could be the answer to all their prayers or damn them all and humanity with them.

Both Blindsight and Echopraxia are impossible to finish without calling into question concepts you’ve taken for granted all your life. Where Blindsight looked at consciousness, Echopraxia wrestles with issues of autonomy, belonging, reality, (trans)humanity, and the existence of God. Watts bases all of his science fiction in real science–his books end with thirty page essays explaining the sources of the concepts the populate the novels and sharing what is speculation and what is current state. He packs all this information into the body of his story and does it without being pedantic or boring.  There are no lectures or overlong stretches of exposition.

Part of his success is his mastery of pacing, but most of it is his vivid and savage language.  Even the simplest discussions by his characters are peppered with gems like:

You could resort to analogies, I suppose. Force transhuman insights into human cookie-cutter shapes. But most of the time that would just get you a bleeding metaphor with all its bones broken.

Or this exchange as one character tries to understand the transhuman hive mind Bicameral Order:

“They micromanage tornadoes, Lee. They turn people into puppets with a wink and a wave, they own half the patent office. They’re about as helpless as a T. rex in a daycare center. So why haven’t they been running things for years?”

“That’s like a chimp asking why those hairless apes aren’t slinging bigger feces than everyone else, if they’re so damned clever.”

And yes, he just had a character use an analogy to explain transhuman insights after having another character criticize the practice, calling into question the entire second exchange while acknowledging that the only way we can understand something as alien as the Bicamerals is through analogy.

Kind of hurts my head, but in a good way.

This is exactly the reason why I read Watts.  He makes me think and pulls no punches doing it.  Yet at the same time, he delivers the action, adventure, adrenaline, high technology, and speculation about the future that I expect from the best of today’s science fiction.

But be warned, he’s not for the faint of heart.  His vision of the world is bleak.  One review on Goodreads called Blindsight the best book they’d ever read, but one they were unlikely to read again. The clearest warning I’ve seen is reviewer James Nicoll’s comment (which is prominently-displayed on Watts’ own web site):

Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.

It’s a serious warning and should be taken that way.  But if you’re willing to look into the abyss and want to be challenged while being entertained, you can’t do better than Watts.

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I’m the best!

Or at least one of the best.  I mentioned this was coming, but I’m deeply pleased that my story, “Monster in the Mountains”, is featured in the Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly: Volume 1, 2009 – 2011.

The collection is available in print and Kindle formats and contains a range of heroic fantasy short fiction and poetry (yes, poetry).  My story is in some very good company.  Especially satisfying is the fact that I wrote “Monster” explicitly for HFQ.  I’d heard that they were starting up and looking for classic  tales of sword and sorcery.  I wrote what I thought was one, and not only did they accept it for their second “issue” but it’s now in their first “Best of.”

While all their material is available on their web site for free, I recommend picking up the collection as the money will help them fund additional efforts.  Plus, it’s got a fantastic cover.  Very proud to be behind that art by Justin Sweet.

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2015 Year in Review

The 1440 books project began with a projection of how many books I had left to read in my life.  This was based on an average of about 44 books a year.  This last year put a real dent in that plan, as my reading rate plunged to 25 books.  Still, I’ll stay optimistic and hope that somewhere in the future, I’ll make up for lost ground.

In the interim, I thought it would be a good time to look back at what I read in 2015.  I posted about a number of them, but there are a few that I didn’t post about that are worth mentioning–and worth your time.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is the best cyberpunk novel I’ve read in years.  Just replace “cyber” with “water.”  Set in the southwestern United States in a depressingly-near future, The Water Knife tells about savage fights for water rights between barely-united states.  Full of politics, technology, and predictions of our bleak future, at its heart, the novel is a rocket-paced thriller with well-crafted characters that builds to a satisyfing conclusion.

In his blurb for The Builders by Daniel Polansky, Myke Cole says “The Builders is Redwall meets Unforgiven, combining the endearing wit of Disney’s Robin Hood with all the grit and violence of a spaghetti western.”  If that appeals, just buy it now.  Trust me.  If it doesn’t, then you’re going to miss out on a gem.  I’d call this novella delightful if it weren’t so dark, but one can’t help but enjoy language like this:

The two old friends stood silently in the fading light, though you wouldn’t have known it to look at them.  That they were old friends, I mean.  Anyone could see it was getting dark.

The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson and Lords of the Starship by Mark S. Geston were both “forgotten” classics of SF that I learned about at a conference many years ago and finally got around to reading.  Both delivered concepts and stories that would never sell today, but that I found deeply engaging.  Franson’s vision of subspace travel on roads of color and the quest for a ship that can go “off road” is a psychedelic odyssey in the vein of M. John Harrison’s science fiction.  Geston’s Lords of the Starship is less a novel than a work of imaginary history that rolls along nicely before suddenly, surprisingly, becoming a totally different novel at the end–in a way not everyone will appreciate, but I enjoyed.

Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin is exactly what it claims to be, but Goodwin makes vast swathes of time go down easily with evocative prose:

As rough country people whose women went unveiled, they preferred holy men who knew how to keep up to the supple intellectuals of the old cities. Tramps and wanderers they liked, fierce talk and wild habits; madmen with their plausible but unexpected utterances, whose ravings were the scorching words of God, direct and necessarily hard to understand.

For the curious, the full list of books for 2015 is:

  1. Batman: Year 100 by Paul Pope
  2. Faded Steel Heat (Garrett P.I., #9) by Glen Cook
  3. World War One: A Narrative by Philip Warner
  4. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
  5. Wildwood (Wildwood Chronicles, #1) by Colin Meloy
  6. The Golden Age Hawkman Archives, Vol. 1 by Gardner F. Fox
  7. The Whispering Swarm (Sanctuary of the White Friars, #1) by Michael Moorcock
  8. Nation by Terry Pratchett
  9. A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce, #3) by Alan Bradley
  10. Angry Lead Skies (Garrett P.I., #10) by Glen Cook
  11. The End of the Story by Clark Ashton Smith
  12. Climbers by M. John Harrison
  13. The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson
  14. Dune by Frank Herbert
  15. Speaking from Among the Bones (Flavia de Luce, #5 ) by Alan Bradley
  16. Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny
  17. Night of Knives (Malazan Empire, #1) by Ian C. Esslemont
  18. The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss
  19. Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance
  20. Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel
  21. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin
  22. Lords Of The Starship by Mark S. Geston
  23. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
  24. The Builders by Daniel Polansky
  25. Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure by Cecil Castellucci

Look forward to new books in 2016 and, hopefully, a few updates on my own writing.

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When we are dead, the opportunity is past

Jack Vance is best known for his Dying Earth books, but I’ve been picking my way through some of his Gaean Reach science fiction as I’ve been able to snag cheap copies.  The latest was Maske: Thaery, which I picked up at a New Hampshire flea market.

Maske: Thaery tells the story of Jubal Droad, a young inhabitant of the planet Thaery who is “obstinate, forthright, and sometimes acts the swashbuckler” as one character describes him.  While on his Yallow, the youthful pilgrimage of all Thariots, Jubal is crossed and nearly killed by a stranger.  His subsequent pursuit of that stranger and a career in the Thaery equivalent of the “big city” leads him to become a hotel inspector, an interplanetary spy, and a major player in the politics of the Droad family and two planets.

Vance does not trouble with the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and science fantasy, and so his science fiction feels more like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy–light on science and heavy on action and witty dialogue.  While not as droll as the Dying Earth books, Maske: Thaery has its share of witty repartee and dry humor, as in this passage (names redacted to avoid spoilers):

A, understanding that B was too stubborn to cook for C and that C would starve before she troubled to feed herself, much less serve himself and B, philosophically took himself to the galley and prepared a stew of meat and herbs

It also has plenty of Vance’s characteristic prose, which manages to be both light and dense at the same time–swift, clean language packed with strange terms and references that seem more to lift it up than weigh it down, creating a sense of an alien landscape with familiar resonances:

Dawn illuminated the sky.  Across the southern horizon extended a dark smudge: Thaery.  By the presence of land the emptiness of sea and sky was emphasized.  Mora rose, and the shore was revealed in detail.  Due south the Cham reached a tree-shadowed arm around Duskerl Bay; beyond spread the gray texture of Wysrod.  The Clanche, with all kites drawing, drove onward with ponderous and fateful motion.

Like much vintage genre fiction, Maske: Thaery is nice and short. Vance packs it with twists, turns, and reversals.  A series of scuffles and a dramatic, set piece confrontation break up the intrigues and keep the story humming neatly along.

The tone, content, and pace of the novel are perhaps best summed up in the words of Vaidro Droad, Jubal’s uncle and sometime mentor:

While we are alive we should sit among colored lights and taste good wines, and discuss our adventures in far places; when we are dead, the opportunity is past.

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