What better day than reading Wednesday to tackle the backlog of the last - ahem! - months of things read?Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (Jason Henderson) (2013)
gives what it says on the tin. The author enters a discourse on the car and car alternatives in San Francisco, viewed through the interactions of three major camps defined by Henderson: progressives, neoliberals, and conservatives. That concept I found an interesting lens for viewing some of the history of transportation in the City, but the execution was somewhat draggy. Perhaps it's a side effect of the intended (academic?) audience? The prose is decent, but less than brilliant, hampered by several quirks or writing choices. It may be a philosophical choice to obscure some parties' names - forces of history versus Great Man? - but ultimately I think some of the elliptical references to, say "the recently elected [public official]" instead of explicitly invoking Agnos or Jordan or Brown undercuts the enjoyment of placing the events and the writer's interpretation of events into a larger context. Also, it damages the book's long-term relevance to people outside the scholastic/social justice hard core. Speaking obliquely of the 2011 interim mayor who said he was not running for mayor and then did is relevant information, but why not just say, "Ed Lee, interim mayor who..." for the person stumbling across this in 2020?
I was also disappointed to see scant attention to another sort of mobility, the physical body's perceived or actual capabilities, as a component of car-centric "automobility" and alternatives. Calls to improve transit and increase trips by bicycle are great, but the failure to acknowledge the role of physical and mental ability to negotiate alternative transit options was a notable gap that could have benefited from greater attention.
It would also be interesting to hear the author's take on the flurry of taxi-like services like Uber and Lyft. On the one hand, expanding ride-share expands non-auto-owning options for urbanites, a progressive goal; on the other, the target audience for these services seems to be a smartphone-savvy class the author might not consider particularly progressive.
When the Hugo nominee lists were published, I put Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie, 2013)
on hold, and got to read it in June. It's a strong first novel, but after finishing it I was surprised it vaulted to the Hugos. Then I looked at the rest of the list, and started listing the things it does: a solid workmanlike job with a double-stranded narrative, tricky PoV issues, a great job with the relationship between Seivarden and Justice of Toren
One Esk Nineteen, big fat space opera worldbuilding delivered in reasonable chunks that (1) set up a mid-novel plot reveal, (2) takes your "the future will be genderblind" and says, "oh really, let's play that out to a logical conclusion" in understated efficient and effective tight-third narrative, (3) get really creepy with respect to police states, concepts of self, and concepts of culture if you start thinking
about it... and it became less surprising.( Spoilers discuss plot and worldbuilding. )
I am not certain I can say this rewards close attention in the manner of some SF classics, but I am sufficiently intrigued to look for Leckie's shorter works and keep an eye out for her next novel. Certainly would encourage others to read this, but with the caveat to bring adjusted expectations.
For reasons I am having a bit of a middling-gray tea-time of the soul, but in this time of self-reflection I was graced with a ray of light, or at least validation that I'm not the only fool in the world. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile (2012)
, a tedious mix of ego and One True Theory which confuses anecdotes with inductive reasoning*. Personal weightlifting goals as an entry point to biological "overshooting". Unnamed high school acquaintances as a door to psychology. Feelings on the "inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature". (Cruel betrayal by the laws of physics
. Wow.) And I find that, somehow, I am not all that enthused by analogies of failed entrepreneurship to dead soldiers. The loss of money and being laughed at is a crisis from which one might recover; unless one is religious, being killed has no Chapter the Next.
*Author: "No, you do not understand. Go read Black Swan
and the light will shine upon you."
Me: "Maybe, but given the ratio of ego to insight, I find myself strangely reluctant to waste more time on this prating. Come back with an endnote including datapoints replacing each instance of isolate personal experience, mister. If I want thought experiments I will revisit New Wave science fiction and its inheritors."
The concept of examining that which is harmed by chaos (the fragile), that which is neither harmed nor benefits from chaos (the robust), and that which benefits from randomness (the antifragile) seems like a good idea, and the book came recommended as "interesting", but I think it's time to chalk this up as "superficially intriguing, unforgivably sloppy execution" and move on, before I devolve into asking "is the author saying type systems should be antifragile and constructs within a type class should not be?" which is going to end with a five-paragraph rant on infrastructure deprecation and sustainable value extraction from high-diversity ecosystems (of organisms and
Dis-rec, unless one brings a drinking game.
On impulse, I picked up World War Z: An Oral Histroy of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) (2006)
, a post-apocalyptic mockumentary of an international zombie plague. Zombies are very much not my thing, but fragmented narrative where the reader is expected to pay attention absolutely is up my alley. Much of the book was a fine dance between queasiness (zombies, ew) and assembling the implicit narrative. There's some enjoyable second-order worldbuilding details, as the interviewees reflect on their experiences: initial cover-up attempts; humans fleeing early outbreaks, not necessarily smartly, and the consequences; novel military tactics; individual and collective survival actions.
I am told the movie based on the novel focuses on an action-adventure Brad Pitt character seeking first Patient Zero and later an utterly ridiculous biological shield from zombie attention, in ways strongly divergent from the tone and themes of the novel.Julie E. Czerneda's Survival: Species Imperative #1 (2004)
is the first Czerneda novel I've picked up in, oh ten-plus years, when I read her first novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger
(space opera, with telepaths, and aliens, and telepathic aliens who look sufficiently human for a romantic thing, with amnesia). Survival
is in a similar tradition of space opera. Research-obsessed scientist is unwillingly, even unwittingly drawn into interstellar politics! There are aliens! There are life-threatening cross-species miscommunications! There is emotionally significant long hair! There are terrifying interstellar conflicts between aliens! The main character has four given names
, opting for the gender-neutral "Mac" over Mackenzie Winifred Elizabeth Wright Connor, and who can blame her?
There's some interesting twists on space opera embedded in the sprawling narrative: intersections of biology and interspecies diplomacy, strong professional friendships within and across genders. Our Mac has Romantic Tingles for one character, a Coulson-esqe secret agent man, but that's one (running cold and hot) thread of a much larger social tapestry. At least as important is her relationship with another - female - researcher, and by the end of the novel it's looking like that
friendship is going to drive far
more plot than anything to do with Mr Romantic Tingles, tying into her interactions with an alien researcher and the plot twists associated with his secretive species.
That social tapestry is one reason the novel takes so long to get moving, flirting with sabotage and investigations before stretching out for places unfamiliar to Mac and the reader. The prose is workmanlike third person tight-ish, with one quirk: the italicized-thoughts convention is in third person past tense. So something like, "A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of them,
Mac decided, must look like small yellow tends themselves
(DAW pb p21)" would be "A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of us,
Mac decided, must look like small yellow tends ourselves
in most novels. Flouting genre convention is no bad thing - see Ancilliary Justice
- but generally I enjoy it most when there's a reason the trends are being ignored. In this case, with much of the narrative hewing closer to ground familiar to the McCaffrey-Lackey-ish generation, it didn't encourage reflection on the cool or interesting things the story was doing so much as it threw me out of the narrative pretty much every time it cropped up, throughout all 435 pages.
I'm feeling no burning rush to tackle the sequel. This was entertaining without leaving me a burning desire to find out what happens next, so it'll probably be saved for bus or airplane reading when I'm in a Big Fat Space Opera mood.
The current book in hand is Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
(originally published in 2001; reading the 2007 edition with a new forward), which strips any romantic illusions about fine restaurant dining from the reader.