Short Book Review: The Sparrow

The back-cover blurb of this book kind of made me want to announce, in an echoey voice, “Jesuits … in … spaaaace!” That doesn’t feel quite appropriate anymore, as it’s kind of somber. The characters feel real enough, though reading their many laughing-’til-they cry conversations is funnier to them than to me (you kind of had to be there). Lots of it feels awkwardly or flatly voyeuristic to me as a result, but maybe that was on purpose.

As for the alien world they visit, the details might seem predictable and not as shocking as intended to anyone who’s already read The Time Machine, but the class commentary of H.G. Wells’s book was actually the centerpiece. In The Sparrow, author Maria Doria Russell (a former academic) is more concerned with the scientific precision of how such a society could come about (and be thrown into turmoil), but the real thematic core is how to reconcile faith with tragedy. Essentially, it’s a modern update of so many tales of missionaries meeting new peoples and dealing with unintended consequences. I suppose I’d recommend this to anyone who thinks you’d have to be crazy to be a Catholic priest, or to anyone who’s ever wondered how the universe can seem to guide you and screw you in the same week.

Short Book Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

I’m pleased to say that io9’s list of recommended sci-fi novels didn’t steer me wrong. Some Amazon reviewers characterized Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep as terrific for hard sci-fi fans but light on characterization (pick a novel for that, they say), but I think it was a pretty good balance. The story is based on a simple premise, that the galaxy is broken into “Zones of Thought,” with faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, and godlike transcendence only possible as you get farther out. This premise gives rise to a fascinating series of interwoven plots culminating in a climactic race to save the universe at all costs. Vinge has an excellent grasp of scale and “human” (or “person”) nature, peppering the story with galactic news group postings to further flesh out how everything and everyone fits together in this setting. The book is slow to get moving, but once underway, it offers a fun, smart, and satisfying adventure.

Short Book Review: Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas is the first book in Iain Banks’s well-known “Culture” series of novels. It stars a man carrying out acts of espionage for aliens in a war against a human society of touchy-feely, liberal hedonists. I came upon this book through some combination of Amazon recommendations and io9’s list of sci-fi novels that will change your life. By the standards of the former mode of recommendation, it was okay, if a bit slow and predictable starting about midway through. By the standards of the latter, it was hugely disappointing.

People talk of this book as some deep meditation on morality, but frankly, I thought the philosophizing was facile. It certainly didn’t help that I’d read an interview with Banks in which he exclaims that the Culture really is his idea of utopia, which kind of hurts my ability to read any complexity into authorial intent. I’m not sure whether the moral here is to declare the Death of the Author, avoid interviews with authors, or avoid top-20 lists that promise to change my life. The next book in my queue is another book from that list, though, so I’m going to try reading it without knowing anything about the author, and we’ll see what happens.

Garfield Minus Garfield Plus Book

Gotta say, I am impressed that Jim Davis has a good enough sense of humor about [Garfield Minus Garfield]( that he’s helping [publish a book of the strips]( On the one hand, I’d like to think this says something about the future of parody and user-altered content—on the other hand, though, it’s probably just free money for Davis, so I guess he’s really got nothing to lose.

Short Book Review: Little Brother

Calling this a YA book is somewhat deceptive: yes, the protagonist is a teenage boy, but I suspect it’s mainly been targeted at young adults because author Cory Doctorow intends it as a call to arms for the next generation. Teenager Marcus Yallow is in the wrong place at the wrong time after a terrorist attack on San Francisco, and is detained by the Department of Homeland Security in a nightmare scenario that, while at times farfetched, is still scarily possible. Doctorow’s portrayal of DHS veers somewhat into the cartoonish (though, as I pointed out elsewhere, perhaps not that far off), and sometimes his agenda gets in the way of his writing, but overall this is an excellent book with a good point: at the end of the day, the government is meant to serve the people, not itself.

*[This was originally posted at [my tumblelog]( where I’ve started [keeping track of all the books that I read](, but I though it would be worth posting here too—of course, now I’ve created a feedback loop, since a link to this post will show up there. I’ll try reversing the polarity…]*

Short Book Review: The Semantic Turn

Reading Klaus Krippendorff’s The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design, I am struck by two realizations: one, that the theory behind design that he offers seems quite brilliant to me; and two, that it was only very recently that something clicked in my head such that I was able to understand what the hell he was saying at all. It’s not that he writes with the practiced complexity of French theorists—actually, he’s relatively straightforward—but he is so to-the-point that the text is quite dense with ideas. Moreover, if you’re the kind of reader who just skips every sentence that starts something like, “According to Heidegger…”, then you won’t get very far. However, a patient reader who is undaunted by abstract claims (before he starts offering concrete examples) will be rewarded with a theoretical treatise that explains what could potentially unify so many different fields and practices of professional designers, and how this theory could lead to more sensible products, from websites to furniture and beyond. Of course, it’s a hardcover by an academic press—i.e., priced as if it were printed on pages woven from pure gold—so you should hit up the library for this one.

Short Book Review: Cordelia’s Honor

Following up on reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s serial sci-fi collection Young Miles, I decided to read a two-novel omnibus featuring the titular Miles’s mother, Cordelia. I read things out of order because Dan suggested that the Miles books are easier to get into, and I’m glad I did. Shards of Honor (the first book in the omnibus), especially at the beginning, reads like a romance novel in space—which is not bad, but probably would have registered as “not what I’m looking for” if I’d started with it. The first few pages are so laden with colorful adjectives that they read like a high schooler wrote them, but the writing improves as you go. Overall, though, I enjoyed both novels in the omnibus, and they provided an interesting answer to the question of what you might get when an unabashedly feminine feminist writes military/political sci-fi: intrigue, a glimpse at strong people’s vulnerabilities, and parenting with a dash of adventure.

Short Book Review: Young Miles

Being on a space sci-fi kick, I’ve been wanting a book that was intelligently written enough to not bore or frustrate me, but light and fun enough to read before bed. Dan suggested Young Miles, a compendium of two novels and a short story from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, a serial adventure about a “deformed” nobleman in a military society (IN SPACE!). It focuses more on character interaction and mystery than your standard space opera, but still has its fair share of punch-ups and laser fights. (I’m convinced that Bujold plays or has played role-playing games, especially due to the familiar “an adventuring party suddenly forms” scenes.) Actually, it had been so long since I had read a book that wasn’t of the “single novel with a point” model that I kind of forgot how much fun it could be to read adventure fiction—not scrabbling around for an intellectual meaning, but just enjoying an adventure and its characters for being witty, unpredictable, and fun to observe, like sitting down for a few episodes of Firefly.

The series has a previous collection of novels, Cordelia’s Honor, but I liked the blurb on the back of this book better, and this focused on a different protagonist, so I started here. I plan return to that earlier one later, treating it as a prequel; for now, I’m already on the next book, just because it’s what the store had in stock.

The Respectability of Selling Out

If you’ve been with us awhile, you might remember that I’ve ranted a bit before about Shepard Fairey’s “obey” product line. His “Andre the Giant has a posse” and “Obey Giant” stickers started as a funky art project and grew into a guerilla marketing campaign for a clothing line sold through overpriced urban boutiques.

From an visually aesthetic standpoint, I’ve always enjoyed his art style, and so it has kind of bugged me that he has billed his work as politically subversive, encouraging reflection on speech and oppression. (Seriously, see quotes from the post linked above.) It’s really hard to make a “power to the people” claim when “the people” need to find a specialty store and shell out fifty bucks for the right to wear your political art in public—especially when plenty of the pieces in your clothing line feature no discernible visual or textual statements beyond a tiny “Obey” label over the pocket that might as well say “Stüssy” or “Volcom” for all that its fashion-conscious wearers care.

And this is why I am glad that Shepard Fairey is going legit.

Read More…

Which came first: the chicken or Iron Man?

Joshua Glenn, writing at the Boston Globe, tries to solve the age-old dilemma: was Black Sabbath’s classic heavy metal song “Iron Man” inspired by the Marvel superhero of the same name? The conclusion is a qualified “yes,” though it suggests that Ted Hughes’s book The Iron Man, upon which the 1999 animated film, The Iron Giant was based. Glenn’s piece is worth a read, however, if for no other reason than to watch the opening theme song to the 1960s Iron Man cartoon. I’ll be walking around the rest of the day, humming “Tony Stark makes you feel/he’s a cool exec with a heart of steel.”