Makers - Cory Doctorow "The future has imploded into the present," writes Charles Cross, quoting Gareth Branwyn's Is there a Cyberpunk Movement?. Cory Doctorow's Makers is another reminder that what looks like the future is already here.

This book, set from the 20-teens and on, describes a New Work economy and its after-effects. It sounded like an interesting premise: a pair of Florida hacker/inventors work with 3-dee printers to create facsimiles of three-dimensional objects. They begin making kitschy, retro objects for collectors, move on to large-scale production (which alters the entire U.S. economy as everybody becomes a "maker," and then crashes as the market shifts. Our two inventors continue their path, developing a "ride" maintained by bots that replicates, well, you'll have to see about that when you read it, but as with Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Disney becomes crucial.

What freaked me out, though, was that these 3-dee printers are not just an imaginative future technology, but already exist. "MakerBots" are small, open source, 3D printers that use plastics to extrude whatever object is programmed into the Bot. They are described by their sellers, but also at places like and by Make Magazine, a site for hackers, builders, and inventors. Call me twen-cen, but I was amazed by the creations that are described here, and that they are for the most part outside of the corporate/university knowledge structure. Witha 3D photo visualizer and a MakerBot, you can create and re-create anything at all, apparently.

Although Doctorow incorporates some decent plot movement to get you through the book, it is also an endeavor in info dumping, right from the first dozen pages and on through to the conclusion. More important than the characters or their endeavors (though the sub-plot of the "fatkins" was awesome!) is the vision of a post-corporate economy and an alternate model of work that Doctorow is developing. I'll discuss this more on my blog, but for now, suffice it to say that it is an impressive vision of the possibilities of human creativity combined with a hacker savvy in which everything that exists can be made into a part of a greater creative commons. As with Little Brother, the message here is that information is power when it is shared, not when kept secret.

And that, I think, is a message we ignore at our great peril.
Embers (The Guild of the Cowry Catchers, #1) - Abigail Hilton On the face of it, this seems like a decent set-up: a disinherited prince of a lesser kingdom becomes Captain of the Police for the slightly sinister ruling Princess, and with the help of a cynical and threatening admiral (who dragged himself out of the lowest classes) embarks on an investigation of a growing resistance force that puts both their lives in danger.

But, the prince Gerard (voice by the esteemed Nathan Lowell, who I hope got a lot of money for doing this) is a "grishnard," the ruling caste of "shelts," who are half-human and half-griffin, with fuzzy ears, tails, and hooves. Silveo, the admiral, is a "foxling," and Gerard's best friend is his trusty griffin, who flies him all around and talks, too. The Princess is bound by her service to the gods, all-powerful wyverns, who also talk, of course. And swim.

Talking animals. Who kill each other and make fine coats to wrap around their, um, pelts. This would be a perfectly good story if not for the endless description of the Wyfervain caste system based on the histories of each "breed" of talking magical animals. Really. Well, mostly.

The growing trust and friendship between the extremely well-voiced Gerard and Silveo is very nicely done, and these are the best parts. I tune out during the occasional "exciting" parts (oho, a storm approaches!). And I was extremely disappointed to discover, upon concluding "Book One," that there is no narrative arc that distinguishes any of the "Books" from one another, and the story is apparently only one-third, or less, over.

Alas and alack, it is over for me. Even the gifted Nathan Lowell can't keep up the interest for me.
Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut [Extended version available at: Infinite Tasks of Philosophy: Slaughterhouse-Five and the Philosophy of War.]

There is so much to admire in this book that Vonnegut calls, in his first chapter, a "failure," since it is precisely in its failures that its greatness consists. It has no narrative arc, and the planned climax - the execution of Edgar Derby - is a mere sentence, disjoined like everything else from the circumstances or from any possible logic that could tie it to a greater meaning.

Vonnegut refuses to tell a story that can make meaning out of war, or out of death. It is pure chance, chaos, and randomness, and even the Trafalmadorians, able to see all moments in time, do not attempt to sum up the moral or political significance of anything. Everything is, precisely as it is, in its surfaces.

I will be teaching this book in Spring 2011, in a very large course (70 students), co-taught with a Politics Professor and called "The Philosophy & Politics of Peace and War." It isn't entirely clear to me what made me feel so strongly about including it on the syllabus (which also includes works by Barbara Ehrenreich, Carolyn Nordstrom, Jurgen Habermas & Jacques Derrida, Mike Davis, and others), except that it affected me profoundly when I first read it, at a college age (perhaps 20).

The jarring transitions that Billy Pilgrim undergoes, the fact that not all of the circumstances he faces are ones of misery, that moments of happiness and peace co-exist inscrutably with the most horrible human-made disasters all at the same time (there is no time) - these all seem to me just about right on target in conveying the absurdity of human reality. It is, explicitly, an anti-war book. But it is not the usual sort, or the kind of political or humanitarian analysis that one finds in periodicals or books or radio shows of the "usual suspects." All that Vonnegut can really put forward is this:

"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that."

After all my own investigations these many years, into politics, philosophy, history, religion, I doubt that I have much more to contribute than that. When the course begins, I will be thinking more about the relationship between War and Time in Slaughterhouse-Five, and perhaps the more interesting bits of this will show up on my blog.

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1) - John Scalzi After enjoying Scalzi's The Android's Dream, I went ahead and read this popular space adventure novel. It turned out to suit well my state of mind, which was not terribly mindful at all, given a serious head-cold and sinusitis. The setup is strong, with a series of conflicts with alien space civilizations in a race for colonial real estate in the universe, and the new, enhanced bodies given to old earth-people who want to die in combat rather than an old folks home. The one peculiarity - the problem of quantum universes, entropy, and predictability - is done well, in an understated sort of way.

My problem, in the end, is the distinct lack of a narrative arc that ties in with the circumstances faced by our intrepid Old Men. Most of the book is formulaic, and the reader awaits a certain twist that will reveal its uniqueness, not in the imagined alien races, or the technologically enhanced bodies, but in a viable sense of movement that never really appears. This is what The Android's Dream does very well. Here, the Special Forces plot line doesn't carry much of anything.

So, a fun read, but not enough to bring me to the next book in the series. Unless, that is, my head cold keeps me as intellectually muted as it has the last day or so.
The Android's Dream - John Scalzi Android's Dream is a creative and solid mash-up of classic sci-fi tropes. The temptation to let the narrative spin out of control must have been quite overwhelming - with an intergalactic Confederation of weird alien races, a mutli-layered conspiracy that threatens to doom the earth to a colonial outpost, so called "n-space" travel beyond the speed of light, and sentient, tea-sipping computer intelligences - but Scalzi keeps his focus and pulls off a series of very satisfying plot surprises that complete the novel just about how the reader had hoped.

As for the mash-up aspect, I was reminded of Vonnegut, Adams, and Stephenson: Vonnegut, for a religion that bears significant resemblance to Bokonism; Adams, for the wacky alien races, whose sexual practices, nutritional needs, and perceptual capabilities are a constant source of humor; and Stephenson for the terrific descriptions of network hacking by self-aware entities. And let us not forget Philip K. Dick, whose "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" provides a central image/object without ever having a derivative feel or even relying on Dick's concerns in the least. If Dick's androids did dream, they would be well-praised for having a dream like this!

Harry Creek and Robin Baker trade some very funny, dry witticisms, and all the characters have a kind of cynicism shot through with self-effacing honor, so the book also turns out to be a kind of feel-good novel, with lots of opportunity for empathy and identification. I'm still up in the air about heading into Scalzi's Old Man's War series, though I am attracted by both the descriptions of it as "Heinlein-esque" and Scalzi's abilities in narrative construction, character, and inter-stellar imagination. Any suggestions on this one?
Shelter - Susan Palwick A remarkably well-conceived and well-crafted novel! Palwick imagines a plague that, once it has ravaged Africa, is sufficiently contained to be able to alter brain chemistry and even "mindwipe" undesirables who can then (usually) be re-socialized from scratch. Add in the development of AI entities, smart-bots, and translated consciousnesses (recording memories while alive and then "translating" them to live on in virtual space), and all the tools are in place for a solid speculative investigation of AI personhood (legal and moral) along with issues of privacy, information technologies, and just punishment.

Palwick does more, though - she tells the complementary and intersecting tales of Meredith and Roberta, early survivors of the CV plague whose lives are directed unwittingly by Meredith's father, Papa Preston, the first-ever translated entity. We see the consequences of the horrors they shared early in the book, and then move back in time for them to explain how circumstances could have brought them together after years apart.

As with her short stories (The Fate of Mice, which I finished a week or so ago - and by the way, mice have a big role to play in this book, too!), Palwick is able to develop thick, emotional horror in her story-telling. I recoiled more than once as the moral dimensions of Meredith's actions dawned on me.

The weakness of the novel follows from its strength - though well-conceived, the plot is almost too well-conceived, and there simply aren't enough dangling loose ends for me. Character's lives are too knotted up with one another for my taste, and resolutions pat enough to be predictable. It is a solipsistic universe inhabited only by a dozen or so people, and the rest of the planet looks on via ScoopNet.

Two other problems: first, for the mid-twentieth century, there is an unbelievable reliance on landlines and other stationary information technology. The book was only published a few years ago, when mobile tech was apparent enough. And second, college students used "books" in their classes, an interesting idea, but one that has pretty much run its course. A few anachronisms in an otherwise rich novel are not so terrible.
Little Brother - Cory Doctorow I read this is nearly a single sitting - it is that good. Think Nick Twisp as a hacker, and you come pretty close. But more important, this is a must-read for anyone under the age of 25 (you'll know why I say "25" when you read it) concerned with the abundance of surveillance tracking nearly every move, and how quickly surveillance and data-mining can turn into full-scale repression.

The book begins with ordinary surveillance devices that most kids confront, creating the high school panopticon of rent-a-cops, clear plastic backpacks, hall passes, and school-wired computers. Combine this with FasTrack, Clipper/Translink, and ordinary credit card usage, and you get a pretty sustained framework for distinguishing "normal" from "deviant" behavior, once the Bayesian equations are better worked out to rid the system of noise.* It is not such a leap to go from that to gait-recognition devices and the propaganda necessary to sustain them. And then throw in a "state-of-emergency" event, and watch the civil liberties crumble. This isn't science fiction, after all; it is simply a description of the last ten years we've lived through.

Within the context of a well-written story of a youth attempting to defeat the madness of his circumstances (again, this is the Nick Twisp connection), Cory Doctorow teaches readers about the logic of surveillance and the techniques that are used both in its service and in resistance to it. Hacking the Xbox is real; basic cryptology is explained. (I kind of wish that Marcus, the main character, had mentioned reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, but I'm happy enough with the Kerouac moments).

With the Wikileaks cables now being released on a daily basis, this book is extremely timely. It helps readers to make the distinction between "secure" and "private." As Bruce Schneir writes in an Afterword, "Secrecy and security aren't the same, even though it might seem that way. Only bad security relies on secrecy; good security works even if all the details of it are public." The U.S. government, and the cabal of national governments across the globe, have fooled us into thinking we are more secure the less anyone knows. And Wikileaks is trying to wake us up.

* One other point. There is an amazing description of the mathematics behind "finding terrorists" based on a tracking system that is even 99% accurate, a system that will identify tens of thousands of people as "terrorist" even if there are ten or twelve actual terrorists around. Read this book. Read and remember these simple equations. And then think about your last trip through an airport.

The City & the City

The City & the City - China Miéville This is the book of China Mieville I have enjoyed most, to date. The creative tension brought about by the heavily metaphorical divide between the two cities (unseeing, unhearing, cross-hatching, breaching) is both thoughtful and mind-bending. Mieville carried off the ambiguity between a "real" and a "psycho-social" divide with panache, never failing to challenge the reader to observe these divides in our own urban spaces. But far from heavy-handed, the book is carried by a moderately plausible detective scenario, and thus reads more easily than the two other Mieville books I have read, Perdido Street Station and The Scar.

What I like most about Mieville is that the most important character in his books is always the city itself (or, in the case of The Scar, the flotilla). This compensates for the weakness of his actual human inhabitants of these cities, who are always drawn either crudely or without any psychological interest. Still, since a city is its inhabitants, it would have been nice to see it reflected in some actual people. All we get, though, are a couple dead foreigners, a derivative cop and his sidekick, some crazy nats and unis, and a mysterious man of the Breach.

I won't soon forget Schroedinger's Pedestrian, though, and I really praise Mieville for his ability to leave absences in important places, as with the artifacts and, of course, the Cleavage itself. The dual nature of the Cleavage (bringing together, separating apart) which Mieville stresses in the post-book interview is precisely the right note to strike in this highly original book.
The Fate of Mice - Susan Palwick "But mostly I was sad, listening to her, because I felt like everyone I knew had died somehow, changed into other people when I wasn't looking." Susan Palwick's collection of stories is chock full of changings, people who transform into other things, for better or for worse. An intelligence enhanced mouse, freaks born with insides on their outsides, fairy tale vampires, quick-aging werewolves, frost demon wives, truth-telling zombies, and more. There's no "normal," here. But the stories have uncanny emotional resonance, and some are on the level of must-reads, including "The Fate of Mice" and "The Old World."

A bit like the last Tachyon collection I read, the order of stories feels erratic. There is a huge difference in the quality of Palwick's later stories compared to the earlier ones, but they are mixed together with little apparent rhyme or reason. Moreso than Eileen Gunn's collection, Palwick's themes are more sustained and even substantial. It is this sustained meditation on themes of human alterity that makes the collection work, and I will recommend it highly.
The Crown Conspiracy - Michael J. Sullivan Not that I am actually going to go out and read one of these books, but I will look forward to the next installment of the Nathan Lowell-read podiobook for the second volume. Tough to rate, as my enjoyment level was pretty high, but I miss all the descriptions of coffee-making and food smells in Nathan's Solar Clipper series.
Stable Strategies and Others - William Gibson, Eileen Gunn, Howard Waldrop I don't exactly want to call this book uneven, because it is uniformly excellent with the exception of the round robin story (a style of which I am not a fan). It is, though, thematically erratic and doesn't leave you with a sense of cohesion. Some stories are written decades before others, as apparently Gunn's popularity far outweighs her productivity. (There are references to this throughout the book, including in William Gibson's Foreword.)

Highlights include "Stable Strategies for Middle Management," a fantastic story of bio-engineering in a corporate marketing agency, and "Lichen and Rock," an extremely deft example of writing at its slipstream finest. "Contact" is an original take on a classic theme, and "What Are Friends For?" offers tentacled monsters along with a humorous analysis of human sexuality, both wasteful and revealing of our "social context."

Perhaps the most important gem to be taken from this is the truth that resounds throughout. The secret of writing, Gibson tells Gunn, is that "You must learn to overcome your very natural revulsion for your own work." At the same time, Gunn refuses to write just for the sake of writing, as everything she leaves here is perfect in its own way.

Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)

Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1) - Iain M. Banks I read over 50% of this tiresome, out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire novel, at which point I started read every third page for a while. All to no avail, so I now set it aside for a day that I hope never comes - the day I have a reason to actually finish it. I was skeptical from the beginning, given the Batman and Robin sewage cell scene from the first pages, but wanted to get to the game of Damage. A game that, while sort of interesting in its blasé cruelty and the moties experiencing the vicarious thrills, doesn't make much poker sense, since the Lives are basically set up on a win-lose basis, and there's no real challenge as to how to outlast the opponents.

The Principle of Hope: Three-volume set (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought)

The Principle of Hope: Three-Volume Set - Ernst Bloch, Paul Knight, Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice I'll be teaching a Symposium course at USF on selections from The Principle of Hope this Fall. I've always wanted to read it through carefully, but being 1500 words and all, never quite was up for it. The students will read about 600 pages, and hopefully I'll be able to get through the whole thing over the four months. Stay tuned! [Update: Full book completed near the end of the semester. Eminently worthwhile, but not much to say about it that is goodreads appropriate.]
The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam #2) - Margaret Atwood I both love this book and have a certain ambivalence. Of course, the revelation at the end of Oryx and Crake - that there are other people - is resolved, but I have never been sure that I am especially happy that there are other people other than Jimmy. But, I do admit that if there have to be other people, I like that Toby and Ren are among them, even if they are not quite as creatively drawn as Jimmy and Crake.

If there's anyone that I do really like, though, it is Adam One. After a while, his sermons really start to grow on you. Atwood is obviously a bit didactic in these books, but I forgive that because she is also so funny with the language of the Corps, the genesplice creatures, and all the products.

Now, why she thinks that rakunks, Crakers, and spray guns are "speculative" (I.e. "reality" in Atwood's view) as opposed to "science" fiction is really so nonsensical and totally beyond me. And calling it "social science fiction" is no better. Ultimately, let's just call it a really fun romp through a really interesting future mixed with some neo-pagan environmentalism, and then read The Road if we really want to get a sense of just how gray, gray, gray the end of the world must be.
Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking: Book Three - Patrick Ness Overall, I was very impressed by the series! Unafraid to kill characters in interesting and even profound ways, Ness also develops some interesting ideas via the Noise, especially the idea that the Noise is Information - thus making the book especially contemporary as an analysis of a mediated or information-based society. I think that many of us are wondering how we can "control" our Noise, and the Noise around us. The gender dynamics are a little rigid, and some of the plot devices are a bit hyperbolic - the hero is always "just missed" while others die in droves around her/him; bones knit almost instantly, as miracle cures abound and perfect weapons are always at hand.

And while the pace is relentless, making it easy to read in a sitting or two, I really enjoyed the introduction of the Sky and the Return in this concluding volume.
The Knife of Never Letting Go  - Patrick Ness I love the originality of this book, attached of course to common themes for a sci-fantasy (the lost mother, the meaning of growing up, the Monsters that never die, etc.). But I'm not very happy about the ending, which requires an immediate move to Book Two, unlike a good trilogy which gives you a moment to breathe in each case. It's like the crappy non-ending of the Girl who Chases and Is Chased and Plays with Fire and Forgets Her Dad Has Surveillance Equipment Too. That cost the book a star, which it actually earned before having it taken away.

Currently reading

Great Jones Street.
The Art of Fielding: A Novel
Chad Harbach