During my recent stints on airplanes over Christmas, I actually did get in some reading, not all of it science fiction and fantasy. In some ways, the most interesting book I read was Dark Genius of Wall Street, The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons, by Edward J. Renehan, Jr. This is not a book I’d recommend to most people. It’s filled with the details of 19th century financial manipulations and complex transactions, but it provides great insight into the men and institutions who, in many ways, shaped the framework of today’s world. Gould was generally regarded as a scheming and unprincipled scoundrel. The details shared by Renehan suggest that he was no more a scoundrel, and perhaps no less, and actually more principled than at least some of his contemporaries, not that such is necessarily an accolade, given the times, compared to other tycoons who are revered today. One fact I found most intriguing was that Gould was not only a philanthropist, but that the vast majority of his philanthropy was accomplished during his lifetime… and that one of the conditions was that his name and gifts never be revealed publicly, possibly because his largess would have undermined his reputation as a cold-hearted, scheming bastard. From the book, he was “only” a calculating, driven, schemer who fought a frail constitution and ill-health most of his comparatively short life.
Other books I read worth my mentioning were The First Fifteen Lives of Harry North by Claire North, Impersonations: A Story of the Praxis, by Walter Jon Williams, and The Fold by Peter Clines.
On recent trips, I’ve squeezed in a little reading, including The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi, which is listed as the first of three, but which I found just fine as a stand-alone. Another book that I approached with apprehension, but which soon drew me in, was Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, another “first” in a projected series, but which certainly doesn’t leave a reader hanging. The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis, has a truly fascinating setting, although I really didn’t care much for the majority of the characters. A number of people have recommended Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen, which I also found interesting, but one aspect of the plot hangs on Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. That’s not surprising, given that Schoen is is a psycholinguist, but, especially in retrospect, that aspect bothered me a little, possibly because I have trouble buying Chomsky’s theory. I also read Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz, intriguing in a strange way, possibly because it provided an insight into a historical personage who was always referenced but never really explained or explored in anything I’d read about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Last of all, I finally finished Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer, which was well-written, opened strongly for me, provided surprising twists, and then ended with the story incomplete [apparently another volume is coming] with characters I liked less and less.
One of the most intriguing books I’ve read recently is Alexander Hamilton, the Ron Chernow biography on which the musical Hamilton is reputedly based. Combined with David McCullough’s John Adams, and Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, I now have a very much altered view of Thomas Jefferson, as not only talented and unrealistically idealistic, but as an extraordinarily self-centered and often petty man who could seldom directly confront others, but who was exceptionally skilled in using words, especially anonymously, to attack others. Hamilton by comparison, was not as adept at self-promotion, and his comparative probity in public affairs and his weakness for women left him at a great disadvantage, particularly after George Washington effectively retired from public life.
In the F&SF field, I’ve recently read Archangel by Marguerite Reed; The Devourers, by Indra Das, a very unsettling book highly praised by others, but which I found far too violent for my tastes despite the skill of the writing; Down and Out in Purgatory by Tim Powers; Prospero’s Children by Jan Siegel; and Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. There are a number of others, as well, but not worth mentioning
These days, my fiction reading is largely confined to when I travel, but over the past few months I’ve traveled a bit and can report on a few books I found worthwhile in some fashion or another. One that surprised me was Anne Charnock’s A Calculated Life, a seemingly almost pedestrian novel about a “vat-grown” young woman who has been educated to be a truly outstanding securities analyst in Manchester,England, which, as I read it, became both more entrancing and quietly and truly frightening. Definitely not feel-good, but thought-provoking. I also finally got around to reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and I frankly don’t understand either the rabid praise about the book or the furor it seemingly caused in some quarters. I thought it was a good book, but neither as great as those who raved over it nor as evil as those who hated it. I’ve heard a great deal about Catherynne M. Valente for the last several years; so I read an early novel of hers, Speak Easy, which was fun, although I did think that the language was more florid than necessary for what she was doing, but that could well be a matter of taste. I also read several other books, one of which I mentioned in my regular blog, and others which I don’t wish to mention, simply because they were all too forgettable, if fun, in one case.
Over Christmas, I did get in a little bit of fiction reading, most of it in the form of advance reading copies from Tor and another publishers. One was Wolf’s Empire:Gladiator, by Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan, which will be released in June and which is filled with action, aliens, incredible treachery and double-dealing and is the kick-off volume of a series [don’t say I didn’t warn you]. Another was Faller, by Will McIntosh [from Tor next October], which has an almost whimsical SF premise presented in a most factual manner and which begins with a man waking up with no recollection of who he is, and only two objects in his hands. One is a toy paratrooper and the other a photograph of him and an unknown woman, on which he has scrawled symbols with his own blood — and the cut he made for the blood is still bleeding, not to mention that he and others are marooned on a section of a city floating in an ocean of air. As for non-fiction, one of my Christmas presents was what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, which I found both amusing and strangely informative. The other book I found truly fascinating was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, most accurately billed as a brief history of humankind, a very well-written but quite provocative work.
I just read the advance bound manuscript of fun YA novel from Carrie Vaughn entitled Study Abroad, but it won’t be published until January 2017 [from TOR]. I also just finished an ARC by a new author, Gerald Brandt, entitled The Courier, which is about a young woman who is motorcycle courier in futuristic California — very fast-moving and it did draw me in. It’s coming out from DAW in hardcover in March. Among books already published, I enjoyed The Six Gun Tarot from R.S. Belcher, and while it is a Tor book, I didn’t even notice who had published it until after I’d read it. And, of course, there’s my non-fiction, this time Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.
For some reason, a lot more of what I’ve been reading lately has been non-fiction, including two books by David McCullough — The Wright Brothers and The Johnstown Flood, both of which I found most interesting. The only F&SF book that I’ve read recently that I can recommend without reservations is one that many have already noted, but I’ll add my approval to theirs, and that is Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings. I also had fun with Lois McMaster Bujold’s novella, Penric’s Demon.
Over the past few weeks, I have managed to cram in a fair amount of reading. A number of the books I read, based on recommendations from various sorts, I’m not about to mention. Some of them I decided not even to finish. Of books currently available, I enjoyed Louise Marley’s collection of stories [Absalom’s Mother] and The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt, although that is one of his earlier works. I also read the advance reading copies of two other books. The first of those was Only the Stones Survive, by Morgan Llywelyn, which is a story about the last chieftain of the Tuatha de Daanan, the ancient Irish people, during the period of the invasion of Ireland by the Gaels. It won’t be published until next January, however. The other book I liked was Allen Steele’s Arkwright, a science fiction novel that spans the time from the first World Science Fiction Convention to the first human interstellar colony. It’s scheduled for publication next March.
I still haven’t read that much F&SF recently, but from the books I have read, there are a few that struck me as worthy of mention, beginning with The Three-Body Problem, a Chinese novel by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, an intriguing novel that appears to be the first volume in a series, and one that begins with the horrors of the years of the Red Guards, and then moves forward from there with chapters alternating between scientific developments and episodes in an elaborate computer game that turns out to be far more [but is NOT your typical immersive virtual reality]. While I have a problem, a significant one, with one proposed technological aspect of future technology, it’s still a very intriguing book. I also greatly enjoyed, just for fun, Carousel Seas, the second book in Sharon Lee’s Carousel Tides series, as well as Tad Williams’s first Bobby Dollar book — The Dirty Streets of Heaven. On a more philosophical nature, I also found thought-provoking E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence.
Because of a great deal of personal chaos in my life — such as remodeling our kitchen and dining room — and the substantial additional effort it took to research, calculate, write and deliver Solar Express, I haven’t done as much personal reading as I usually do. One of the books that did stand out, not so much for its content as its presentation, was actually a non-fiction book entitledThe Island of Knowledge, by Marcelo Gleiser. The book’s subtitle (“The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning”) is as good a summary as any. I also enjoyed, as much as a guilty pleasure as anything, the latest Alex Benedict novel, Coming Home, as well as an older book, The Crown Jewels, by Walter John Williams. I also read a quite a few fantasies by new authors, with none of which did I find worth mentioning.
Since the last time I posted, I’ve actually read a few books that I’ve enjoyed, along with more than a few that I didn’t or thought were vastly overhyped, and one that I enjoyed but, upon reflection, felt… well, you’ll see. For just fun, I liked Alex Bledsoe’s The Sword-Edged Blonde, although the title is really a stretch, and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which, although delightfully written, is mostly just fun, with a hint of Peter Pan growing up thrown in. Another fantasy PI novel was Ari Marmell’s Hot Lead, Cold Iron, which mixes faerie with 1930s Chicago underworld. Another book that I liked, but had reservations of a different sort about was Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, since I thought his take on future interstellar economics was, shall I say, either a bit-far-fetched or an incredibly sarcastic and sardonic not-so-veiled commentary on our current economic structure, with the resolution turning on a long-hidden, but unveiled just-in-time technological deus ex machina totally at odds with the entire technology Stross so carefully constructed. I liked it, but…. As for the other books I’ve read recently, let’s just say that while I feel I need to know what others are writing, there are some writers I may not be revisiting, at least not soon.