Friday, December 30, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

A Talent For War, Polaris, Seeker, The Devil's Eye, Echo, and Firebird by Jack McDevitt

Lost ships, missing colonies, dreadful secrets, assassination attempts: it's all in a day's work for antiquities dealers Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath. And in a galaxy thousands of years into the future where humanity has spread far into the stars and countless civilizations have risen and fallen, there are plenty of secrets to uncover.

Only three niggles beset me: One, McDevitt uses the "sabotaged aircar" as a plot device way too much. Second, the technology do not always seem convincingly "futuristic." But this universe was originally established in 1989 with A Talent for War, so some "retroism" to its "future" might not be wholly unexpected. Third, the gender politics seem too contemporary, even retrograde. But perhaps the latter two details are not accidental at all. One of the themes of the books is that history is contingent and ultimately mysterious. There are thousands of years of Golden Ages, Dark Ages, and blank spots in their history, and the galaxy they inhabit is in no way a straight line of progress from our time. Just because they have faster-than-light travel doesn't mean they're all that much more "advanced" than us.

But those are really just niggles. Compulsively readable, this series is a tasty genre-melange of science-fiction, mystery, and adventure. Recommended for anyone who likes a nice bit of intrigue and investigation.

Winning Mars by Jason Stoddard

Jere Gutierrez built a network from a YouTube channel. But in a near-future where currencies from virtual reality games are stronger than the dollar and risk-assessment algorithms rule business decisions, "linear entertainment" is waning. So when an Old Hollywood (70s-00s) producer pitches Gutierrez a reality show, a reality show about going to Mars, Gutierrez is first aghast, then intrigued, then hooked. Money woes, technical challenges, and government interference all must be overcome to get eleven contestants of widely different motivations to Mars, where they'll race for fifty million dollars... and their lives.

As I've mentioned before, I'm totally over dystopias. Thankfully, then, despite worries at the beginning, the world of Winning Mars isn't really dystopic. It seems like a real world, with both good and bad aspects to it. IMHO, it is a plausible extrapolation, for the most part, at least from our current vantage point (though undoubtedly in ten years it'll seem completely off-base).

What I enjoyed most about it was its hopefulness and optimism about humanity. Ultimately, it pleads the need for the human imagination and the drive to go forth, making space for adventure and crazy-eyed idealism, taking chances, exploring, pushing, growing. As a child of Trek, this speaks to my very soul.

The Folded World by Catherynne M. Valente

Sequel to last year's Habitation of the Blessed, this is the tale of Prester John's daughters, of the war that brought doom to his kingdom, and the beginning of the end of magical things.

As in Habitation of the Blessed, this is a metafiction more than fiction, a story about stories, about the transmission of stories, and "history." What is fiction, what is history, what is myth, but lies? Can lies be true? It's also about love and war and parenting and religious fanaticism and hatred and death and Apocalypse.

"Beautiful" is the best word to describe it. The language is achingly beautiful. Lovely and haunting, full of melancholy and wistfulness, this is an utterly enthralling and enchanting tale of loss change.

The Unexpected Miss Bennet by Patrice Sarath

Poor Mary Bennet. The middle sister, the "ugly" sister, the dull sister, with none of the vivacity of her younger sisters, or the beauty and sense of her older sisters, the one always overlooked and unappreciated by anyone. Everyone just takes for granted that she's happy with her sermons and her piano practice and her moral superiority. But if that's not all she wants for herself? What if she wants to be heard and seen and appreciated? What if she wants to fall in love?

Some time away from home, an unexpected friendship, and the absence of her overshadowing sisters brings Mary out of her shell and allows her to finally find herself. And even more unexpectedly, along comes a suitor and the most unlikely of the Bennet sisters just might find love after all.

An utterly charming and wonderful confection, highly recommended for those who love Austen or even just sweet historical stories.


IlJedui said...

I think I really should read this Valente. I tried to read Palimpest a few years ago, but could not get into it. Maybe Habitation of the Blessed will be better.

Frank said...

I've never read any of her other stuff, either, but the Prester John stuff really is just gorgeous. Don't go in expected mega-action and plot, though; just let the language wash over you.