Monthly Archives: December 2009

Reading Notes: King, Doctorow, Banks, Kress, Atwood, Wilson, Bear

As the year comes to a close and my plans for semi-detailed reading notes get lost in holiday busyness, let me try a relatively quick summary of reactions to several recent books, just to close out this activity for 2009.

What with December busyness, it took me nearly three weeks to get through Stephen King’s Under the Dome, but then it was nearly 1100 pages. King rates as something of a guilty pleasure among my reading priorities; fast, easy, engaging reading, more substantive than bestselling competitors if not substantive enough by genre standards to always rank among any year’s SF, fantasy, or horror best. While I’ve bought every major King volume over the years, I only seem to get around to reading every third book or so. (I did read last year’s Duma Key, and liked that just fine too.) Under the Dome has a genuine, if familiar, SF premise at its core, and it exhibits King’s tendency to focus plots on commonplace, undereducated, even venal characters, but taking these as givens the book excels in depicting an intricate, inseparable web of plot developments and character interactions that result from the simple premise of the book — the mysterious ‘dome’ (actually not as spherical as the cover image depicts or the title suggests) that encapsulates a small Maine town. It resembles Lost, the TV series, in the way that various characters, each with their backstory, responds to a crisis. And would itself serve as the basis for a comparably suspenseful TV series.

More briefly, or I’ll never finish:

Cory Doctorow’s Makers exhibits the author’s usual breezy cleverness and charm, and the first half is fascinating in suggesting how technology will render current markets and business models obsolete. But when this premise runs its course, and subject of the book becomes… theme parks! Theme parks commemorating the good old days of the “maker” technology, which, rather implausibly, become wildly popular, and the entire second half of the book is about two theme park franchises trying to undercut each other, yawn. Still, the style is breezy and the characters smart and wise-cracky; it’s fun as the same small cast of characters come and go, part and reunite, usually living together and often sleeping together, like some sort of Heinleinian extended family.

Iain M. Bank’s Transition is a recomplicated tale about mysterious manipulators of alternate universes and the agents they hire to do their bidding. It’s not an original premise, but what’s original here is the treatment, the kaleidoscope view of intersecting characters and timelines and story threads, that takes most of the book to piece together. Highlights are various set pieces and mini-essays, such as one on torture techniques, on Adrian’s tastes for various drugs, on solipsism; and scenes with Lady Bisquitine, a character out of an Alfred Bester novel.

Nancy Kress’ Steal Across the Sky is by comparison a relatively conventional SF novel with a familiar seeming premise — aliens have come to Earth and recruited various humans for missions on other planets for some mysterious purpose that involves the aliens ‘atoning’ for some past sin. The book shifts from planetary adventure in its first third to a sociological study in its middle and a chase thriller toward the end, but a fascinating premise emerges that develops to an abruptly affecting conclusion.

I liked Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood better than some genre critics, who quibble over the author’s old-fashioned SF sensibilities (the cutesy product names, e.g. AnooYoo Spa, etc.), and perhaps the lack of substantive background explaining the near-future catastrophe (though a similar lack didn’t seem to hurt the acceptance in SF of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). As an apocalyptic tale of how ‘little people’ react to a survive a catastrophe they don’t understand, it’s substantial and involving, worth reading even if its SF bona fides are spotty.

My favorite SF novel that I’ve read so far from 2009 is Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock, another book in which the mechanism that transforms now into a degraded future — here, a 22nd century in which the world economy has collapsed and in the US a religious “Dominion” certifies churches and restricts knowledge of the past — isn’t the focus, compared to the story of individuals living in this future. The story follows the title character and his friend as they are forced to leave their small midwestern town, are drafted into war, emerge into political prominence, and pursue individual passions — for science, for making movies(!). The book has impressive scope and thematic depth, of special interest for its focus on science vs religious faith (or control), and the way scientific truths, once suppressed, quickly become regarded as fantasy, or myths, or heresy.

And since finishing King, I just read Greg Bear’s latest thriller, Mariposa, whose timely plot elements include the collapse of Dubai and the tottering US economy. It’s a slick, engaging story that takes a while to piece together (somewhat as in Banks’ novel), with a couple sf premises in the mix — an experimental treatment (Mariposa) for post-traumatic stress disorder that has post-human side effects, and the emergence of successors to computers called ‘competers’ with the potential to control what humans cannot. The book is more thriller than SF — the consequences of those sf premises are implied more than explored — but it’s tightly written (especially compared to King!) and quite effective.