A Lunar Veteran’s Guide to Re-Entry

paolo-bacigalupi-the-windup-girl-book-coverI wear my nerd credentials proudly, but I’ve never been a science-fiction guy.  I loved the original Star Wars trilogy as a kid, but name me a kid in the late 70s/early 80s who didn’t.  And besides, what else was I going to watch – Ice Pirates? (Answer: actually, yes, I would).  All the Star Wars action figures notwithstanding, it was actually Raiders of the Lost Ark that got me hooked on movies, and, if my nerdness was defined by anything, it was by comic books (and, much later, music and film).  Science-fiction never really entered the picture in any serious way during my childhood, which is when, in my experience, those obsessions take root. I’ve never had much use for Star Trek in any of its iterations, and it’s taken the delightfully foul-mouthed Peter Capaldi to get me interested in Dr. Who.  There’s no Serenity or Babylon 5 in my past, I still haven’t watched the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and I’ve never gone through a Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov phase.  And even though three of my favorite authors – Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut – have all dabbled in science-fiction (or, as Ellison demands, speculative fiction), I find many of their space-set stories to be among their least interesting.  And when I do like things that can probably be classified as science-fiction, it’s usually for non-sci-fi reasons.  I adore the first two Alien movies (and have guarded affection for the second two), but mainly for the way they play out like balls-to-the-wall horror movies that just happen to be set in space.  Lasers, space ships, voyages to distant planets, a shirtless William Shatner – all of it leaves me singularly unimpressed.

I don’t know why I have this particular … well, if not aversion, exactly, then ambivalence toward science-fiction.  I mean, I get the appeal: the thrill of the unknown, the exploration of new technology, the implied boundary-busting of traveling across space and time.  It’s fun, and I enjoy it in moderation.  But I also find it frustratingly (but maybe appropriately) weightless.  I can sit back in a movie theater seat and give myself over to two hours of big-screen razzle-dazzle, but when I’ve tried reading science-fiction I just can’t sink my teeth into it.  As a reader I crave connection, and I’ve always found it difficult to relate to the characters in the science-fiction I’ve read.  Similarly, intergalactic adventures just don’t have the same pull for me as struggles that take place in settings I can recognize.  It’s not for lack of imagination – I actually enjoy fantasy quite a bit – but I read the story from a remove, watching it unspool like a TV show that plays as background noise.  It just leaves me thoroughly unmoved.

All of this is why I picked up Book #2 in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – with some reluctance.  Nebula and Hugo Awards be damned – those are just honors bestowed by a club I admire but in which I’ve never sought entrance.  So why’d I pick it up in the first place?  Blame it on Young Adult Lit (YAL).  Bacigalupi has written two absolutely dynamite YAL texts, the loosely connected postapocalyptic novels Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities.  The world-building in these two books – set in the ruins of New Orleans and Washington, D.C. – is impeccable, and the stories themselves represent the very best of what YAL can do.  When I heard he’d written a book for adults, I knew I needed to give it a shot, regardless of genre.

It did not begin well.  One or two chapters in, and I quickly found myself flailing around, looking for something to anchor my reading.  Set in postapocalypse Bangkok, the book begins with Anderson Lake, an American factory foreman who we gather is actually undercover and on the lookout for new genetic strains of vegetation.  The early chapters are tipping over with the kind of scientific gobbledygook that always turns me off:

The press slams down, clipping another kink-spring among the forty per hour that now, apparently, will have only a seventy-five percent chance of ending up in a supervised disposal fill at the Environment Ministry.  They’re spending millions to produce trash that will cost millions more to destroy – a double-edged sword that just keeps cutting.  Yates screwed something up, whether by accident or by spiteful sabotage, and it’s taken more than a year to realize the depths of the problem, to examine the algae baths that breed the kink-springs’ revolutionary coatings, to rework the corn resins that enclose the springs’ gear interfaces, to change the QA practices, to understand what a humidity level that hovers near 100% year-round does to a manufacturing process conceptualized in drier climes.

The detail is vivid and punctilious – certainly of a piece with what I’ve come to expect from Bacigalupi’s work – but the end product, at least at first, left me cold and not a little confused.  Complicating matters is the fact that we’re quickly introduced to a panoply of characters: Lake, his assistant Hock Seng, a government solider named Jaidee, his partner Kanya, and their superior, General Pracha.  We also meet the head of the trade association, Akkarat, and the protector of the child queen, Somdet Chaopraya, as well as Carlyle, another American in Bangkok.  And then there’s Emiko, the titular android (here called New People) who is employed at the beginning as a sex slave.  Programmed to obey and hobbled by a biology that causes her to frequently overheat, she’s the only sympathetic character for miles.

Most of these characters revolve around each other for the first half of the book, playing out conflicting motivations.  Lake wants to strike a deal with Akkarat to use his seedbank to develop new crops; Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee, wants to escape the city by stealing Lake’s blueprints for super-sophisticated springs; Jaidee wants to keep order; and Emiko, tantalized by stories of a colony of New People in the hills outside Bangkok, wants to make enough money to buy her freedom.  Lake plays a crucial role in this discovery, and it’s the relationship that develops between human and New Person that gives the book its emotional center.  The heavy lifting through all of this is in keeping all these characters straight and negotiating the stew of technical jargon and Thai slang.

Halfway through, however, the story picks up.  Jaidee’s wife goes missing, Lake strikes a crucial deal with Akkarat, Emiko reveals a particularly brutal talent, and Bangkok’s delicate peace begins to collapse under all the competing conflicts.  It’s at this point that I became most interested in the story, but it might not be particularly surprising to learn that this is the point when The Windup Girl looks least like a science-fiction novel and most like a James Cameron movie.

I know this all sounds very lukewarm, which is misleading.  Once I got my bearings I actually enjoyed Bacigalupi’s clever combination of the Thai vernacular with the invented futuristic lingo.  There’s a little hint of Philip K. Dick in the the human/android relationship, as well as some James Ellroy in the way the characters navigate the city in a byzantine web of alliances and rivalries.  And of course Bacigalupi’s frankly astounding gift for creating new societies out of the ashes of the old is the light that guides readers (or at least this particular reader) through the most complex passages.

It’s not enough to make me a convert, but The Windup Girl is certainly good enough to ensure that I’ll pick up something similar in the future if the pedigree is right.

On to Book #3 in the Project: Michael Chabon’s Werewolves in Their Youth.

*****

Current listening:

Embrace_TheGoodWillOut_Cover

Embrace – The Good Will Out (1998)

We Are All Accelerated Readers

S. abrams

The story you walk into, he has learned, is always more complex than it first appears (352).

Having finished J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S.I’m not sure there’s a clearer way of summarizing the experience than with a line from the book itself.  In my previous post I alluded to the complexity of this endeavor: the complementary narratives; the way the comments in the margins exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future; the supplementary material (some of which can be seen in the above image) that deepens the lives of Jen and Eric, the student readers.  But I unfairly dismissed the main narrative – The Ship of Theseus, by fictitious author V.M. Straka, the book through which Jen and Eric are  communicating – as Pynchon Lite.  In the first sixty pages, which is all I had read at the time of my last post, I didn’t realize that what Dorst (and make no mistake: S. might have been Abrams’ idea, but it’s Dorst’s book) has done is write a book that could very easily and satisfyingly stand on its own.  And this means, of course, that the entire experience is richer and more impressive than I realized a week ago.

As I plowed through S., I couldn’t help but think of Richard Linklater’s masterful film Boyhood.

In that movie, which is every bit as audacious as S., writer/director Linklater charts the growth of a boy into a man, capturing him and his family in bits and pieces over the course of twelve years.  We watch the boy – Mason – grow up, but we do so selectively.  We see, at most, one or two representative days from each year (which Linklater actually shot with the same cast), and we’re made to fill in the blanks that we don’t see.  Some of this is accomplished through the characters’ dialogue when they allude to other events (a divorce, a date with a girl), but there are, unavoidably, many things we don’t see.  Even so, we get a strong sense of who Mason is through these narrative fragments: what he values, how he relates to and interacts with his family, what he wants to do with his life.  We know some of this through simple intuition and inference, but most of it comes from those well-chosen glimpses of Mason’s life we see in annual intervals.  Linklater gives us just enough to know the story.

There’s something similar going on in S. in the way Jen and Eric’s relationship develops, but it works to different and – for my taste – even greater effect.  The book begins, as I mentioned last time, with Eric, a disgraced grad student, and Jen, a senior about to graduate, attempting to unravel the mystery of Straka’s true identity, which they do partially by attempting to decipher a code they believe is buried in the text of The Ship of Theseus.  This is all conducted through comments in the book’s margins, and for much of the beginning of S. their remarks to one another are purely – or mostly, at least – academic, innocuous, random observations on Straka’s style and life.  As the book progresses, however, it becomes clear that the plot of Theseus is an extended metaphor for Straka’s real-life acts of sedition, and Jen and Eric quickly find that their search for his identity – whether he’s a specific individual or a composite of the members of a secret literary society – is embroiling them in a conspiracy larger and more dangerous than they bargained for.

StrakaBut of course there’s no point where Eric says to Jen, “Holy cow, new friend whom I’ve never met, this is one dilly of a pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into!”  Instead, it’s all done through their obliquely paranoid references. Jen mentions that someone seems to be following her. Eric warns her to be careful covering her tracks when she removes things from the library archives. As they get closer to the heart of the mystery, someone burns down the hotel Jen is staying in.  Like Boyhood, we learn all of this in small shards of narrative, those brief comments left in the margin.  And in that way it makes their story even more suspenseful.  Eric warns Jen not to break into the office of his former faculty advisor, and then Jen doesn’t write any comments for several pages. How do we read that silence?  It actually made me nervous, which is sort of ridiculous but also sort of awesome.

Dorst has written a standalone novel imbued with an increasingly claustrophobic sense of menace.  But the truly remarkable thing, and the reason it all hangs together so well, is that he’s created two distinct (and distinctly believable) characters in Jen and Eric.  I was able to easily buy into their early friendship, their halting flirtation, their immersion in the mystery of the book, because their individual voices are so strong.  It’s a rare feat to create a world as vivid as this through a device as minimal as a series of largely disconnected statements made in response to a completely unrelated text.

I’ve purposefully left out most of the nuts and bolts of the plot – both in The Ship of Theseus and in what becomes of Jen and Eric’s amateur sleuthing.  The reason, I hope, is evident.  One of the very real pleasures of the book is having no idea what’s coming next.  It’s rare (for me, at least) to feel like I’m experiencing something brand new when I flip the pages of a book.  S. gave me that in spades.  It’s something special, in the very best sense of the word.

On to Book #2 in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.

*****

Current listening:

Sufjan illinois

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (2005)

 

 

Asking Strangers for Directions

Look Inside

Okay, okay – don’t get excited.  Posts will be, as ever, sporadic, and I hope consecutive daily posts like these aren’t implied as a promise I likely won’t keep.  But it probably does make some sense to check in while I’m still in the early stages of a new book, if for no other reason than to offer up some first impressions and capture the process of immersing myself in a new story.

And I’m a sucker for immersion, especially when it comes via unconventional means.  I scoff – scoff, I say – at books that get too self-consciously arty, but I love it when an author can pull off a genuinely immersive experience in a way that pushes the boundaries of what a novel can be.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is brilliant in the way it plays with shifts in genre, font, and the placement of words on page to create one of the creepiest reading experiences I’ve ever had.  On the other hand, I found David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and its plethora of footnotes to be annoying and cumbersome.  I could easily put up with rotating Danielewski’s book upside-down to read certain pages – and flipping back and forth to read boxes of text that appear as mirror images from page to page – but Infinite Jest just made me grumpy.  So it’s a fine line (and one which Danielewski’s second book, Only Revolutions, will test when I get around to the “D”s.  More on that when I get there).

As much as I liked the idea of J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. – the first “A” book on my top shelf – I admit that it made me apprehensive.  The photo at the top gives you just a hint of what the reader is in for.  At first glance it looks like a library book, complete with interlibrary loan stamp and due dates printed on the inside back cover.  Open it carelessly and various documents flutter from its pages – memos, newspaper clippings, postcards, an old decoder wheel.  And a cursory flip through the opening chapter lets you know that you’re in for a reading experience unlike any you’ve ever had – and one that will likely be more than a little labor-intensive.

Theseus 1But that’s where the immersion comes in, see?  Because S. plunges you into at least two (and arguably three) levels of story, which you can start to see from the provided images.  The primary text is a bogus novel called Ship of Theseus that’s ostensibly written by a (bogus) guy named V.M. Straka.  I’m only sixty pages in, but so far it appears to be a sort of quasi-Pynchon mystery that centers on a guy with amnesia trying to figure out who he is, how he lost his memory, and why everything feels like a conspiracy.  It’s passably entertaining, but the more fascinating narrative – and I suppose we could argue that this is actually the primary text – is the one that happens in the margins between Jen, an undergraduate lit. major on the cusp of graduation, and Eric, a scandal-plagued grad student.

So, on the one hand you’re reading Straka’s Ship of Theseus, but the heart of the story is the complementary mystery raging in the margins between Jen’s blue cursive and Eric’s black printing.  Because Straka, as it turns out, is a Salinger-esque figure whose identity has perpetually been in doubt.  Eric’s dissertation was going to be on unraveling the Straka mystery until he fell afoul of his apparently duplicitous and underhanded faculty advisor who pulled his funding and got him booted from the university.  So now Jen and Eric (who have never met, at least not as far as I’ve read) compare notes, decipher codes, and try to solve the mystery, all through the marginalia they leave for each other in a library copy of Ship of Theseus.

It is, so far, delicious.  The ongoing conversation between Jen and Eric is sort of brilliant in the way it balances amateur sleuthing, university intrigue, conspiracy theories, mild coming-of-age angst, and flirtatious banter – all in comments made in reaction to another text.  So Ship of Theseus has to work as A) a standalone narrative, B) a vehicle for the central mystery, and C) a way for Jen and Eric to develop as characters.

Theseus 2And then there’s this.  In the image to the right you’ll see that there’s some red and green notes that stand out in stark contrast to the customary blue and black.  These notes appear sporadically, and it took me a few of them to figure this out, but the red and green comments were apparently written by Jen and Eric at some point in the future, reflecting back on the process by which they initially worked their way through the mystery.  This adds an extra layer of complexity to the novel –the third level of story I mentioned earlier – as Jen and Eric’s commentary simultaneously exists in the present (the blue and black ink comments that attempt to puzzle out Straka’s identity at the same time as the reader), the future (the green and red comments that allude to events that haven’t happened at the time the blue and black notes were written), and the past (the green and red notes that comment on blue and black notes that have already happened). There’s also some periodic notes in another pen entirely – which I guess we can call faded ballpoint – that represent Eric’s grad student observations of the text (symbolism, allusions, etc.).  Make that story level 3a.

And, as I mentioned at the top, there’s also the various other documents crammed in Ship of Theseus‘ pages, like this newspaper spread that alludes to one of the reasons why Eric was expelled from the university.

Theseus 3

On second thought, I shouldn’t have been so hesitant in my language earlier: it is brilliant.  Sixty pages in, and I’m officially hooked.

*****

Current listening:

Shearwater animal

Shearwater – Animal Joy (2012)

Wrapped Up in Books

bookshelf 1Besides being under-ambitious in my writing (as evidenced by the way this blog has flamed out yet again), I’m over-ambitious in my reading.  In some ways that makes sense.  I’ve always been a reader, which anyone who’s followed me through the various iterations of my blog will recognize as well-traveled territory.  I can scarcely think of a time when I haven’t been reading something for pleasure.  Maybe my undergraduate college years, when I was heavily (and paradoxically) into angst and improv comedy and less into reading (unless it was Oscar Wilde in the dining hall, which I optimistically figured would attract a sadsack female counterpart and we could wear black and listen to The Smiths together).

But otherwise I’ve been a constant reader since – my parents tell me – the age of three.  The catch, as I’ve gotten older and more financially secure, is that my shelf(ves) of “to-read” books has grown exponentially.  At some point in the last couple years I realized a couple things:

1) I want to read all these books, but if I keep buying more I will never get to them.

2) If I keep buying at the current rate, I will die before I’ve read everything I own.

bookshelf 2A couple weeks ago I did a preliminary count of what was on these shelves.  At that time the count stood at exactly 150 books.  I posted the original photo (not seen here) on Facebook with the half-fanciful notion that I could read everything on these shelves, essentially clearing them out, in approximately three years if I read only these books (meaning none of the Young Adult Literature [YAL] I read for work) and didn’t buy any new ones.  It was, I wrote at the time, perhaps an experiment worth trying.

Cue an old friend from high school, suggesting that such an experiment might be blog-worthy, a la Julie & Julia.   While I know the fidelity with which I view this blog too well to commit to anything of that nature, I like a good challenge, and the prospect of reading only these books for as long as it took to get through them grew on me.

I knew, however, that I had to do one thing first – namely (and stupidly), buy more books.  I had collected nearly all the titles in Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series, but there were several noticeable gaps that troublingly fell in the middle of the series.  Being just OCD enough that I knew I couldn’t comfortably skip over them, I ordered the missing titles from Amazon, along with anything else I knew I would be seriously distressed at not being able to read for three years or more (like James Ellroy’s brand-spanking-new novel Perfidia or the next two books in Jonathan Maberry’s Pine Deep trilogy).

This morning I finished reading Joseph Heller’s The Painter, and I think I’m ready to begin this experiment, for however long it takes me (or as long as I’m able to sustain it without getting bored).  The accompanying photos reflect the current state of my “to-read” shelves, which now stand at 162 books.  The gap you’ll notice four rows down in the top photo represents the missing Pine Deep books, which should be arriving any day, courtesy of Alibris.  Otherwise, the shelves are more or less what I’ll be working with (except for the exception noted below and the eventual addition of Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men, which Amazon couldn’t send me for three weeks).

In order to complete this task, I’ve set the following rules for myself:

1) I have to cool it with the YAL, but I also realize that I have a professional obligation to stay current in the field.  I’ll try to set aside some time in my office every day to read it, but I won’t do it in my free time outside school anymore.

2) If you zoom in far enough on the top photo you’ll see that I’ve alphabetized the books by author’s last name and then organized each author’s books chronologically.  My current plan is to start with “A,” read the first book (in this case, J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., which doesn’t appear in the picture above because I’ve already set it aside), then move to “B,” read the first book there (Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl), and so on through the alphabet, then return to “A.”  I do, however, reserve the right to shuffle the order if I feel encroaching burnout.

3) I won’t buy any new books (or used books, for anyone tempted to think I’m playing games with semantics) until I’ve cleared these shelves, except in extreme circumstances.  Examples of such circumstances would be if Mo Hayder publishes her next Jack Caffrey title or when Jonathan Maberry publishes his next Joe Ledger novel, where my name – the author tells me – supposedly appears in the Acknowledgements.

4) I make no promises for the regularity with which I’ll post updates on the experiment here, but ideally I’ll check in with my progress a couple times a week.  I currently log and review everything on GoodReads, so at the very least I’ll cross-post my reviews here.

And that’s it.  If I demonstrate my usual degree of constancy (see my previous attempt to review every movie adapted from a Stephen King book, which lasted for about five movies), this little experiment will be a distant memory in a month’s time.  But sometimes I do surprisingly well when I create goals that keep me honest.  And when there’s a chance of public embarrassment.  That, too.

*****

Current listening:

Blur leisure

Blur – Leisure (1991)