December 31, 2011

Stand on Zanzibar (#94)

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner.

What I said then:

Classic sci-fi that, according to the blurb at least, seems strangely prescient.

What I say now:

Oh. What a fool I am.

After my disastrous experience reading Jane Eyre over the Christmas period last year, when this December rolled around I thought 'How 'bout a sci-fi classic this time? How dense and difficult could it possibly be? It's probably an action-packed romp!'

I picked the wrong God-damn sci-fi classic. I was hoping for something as fun and exhilarating as The Stars My Destination, and I didn't get it.

Written in the late sixties but set in 2010, Brunner's world is grossly overpopulated. In the west, Eugenics Boards give licenses to bear children only to those with clean genes. Post-colonial Africa can't feed itself. Nobody knows what China's up to, as it has closed its borders. Psychologically unable to deal with the crowding in the cities, people frequently snap and run amok (becoming 'mukkers'), killing, starting riots, and generally going off the deep end. The plot of the book, such as it is, centres on two room-mates: Norman, an African-American, heads a giant American corporation's plan to basically buy an entire African country; and Donald, who is plucked from his indolent lifestyle and transformed into an assassin and spy, then sent to abduct a third-world geneticist who's made a startling discovery.

I say "the plot of this book, such as it is" because Brunner has a pretty unique approach to narrative: the whole thing is made up of hundreds of miniscule chapters, many of which have no connection (or very little connection) to anything else that's happening elsewhere in the novel. Often the various narratives stop dead so we can be treated to an avalanche of snippets from TV shows, or conversations on the street, or advertisements, or the collected works of an obnoxious social theorist named Chad C. Mulligan, all offered in a context-less blitz on the senses. This is a very deliberate tactic on Brunner's part: as well as allowing him to give a wide-ranging view of his imagined world, its disorientating effect is deliberately supposed to provoke a feeling of 'information overload' in the reader. There exists in the novel a super-computer named Shalmaneser which processes vast quantities of information from all over the world, looking for patterns. The layout of the novel forces us, the reader, to attempt to do the same. I guarantee you won't know who everybody is all the time, but that's okay, you're not really supposed to.

Unfortunately, that made it pretty much the worst possible book for me to read in the midst of the Christmas Retail Insanity I've been living through for the last few weeks. If I'd been a bit more alert and attentive I might have made more connections, understood it better, and liked it more. As I was reading, twisting the strands of the different stories together, I kept hoping that all this information would ultimately cohere into a satisfying novel.

Not much, however, could have made me satisfied with the way that Norman and Donald's twin narratives both petered out with endings that were not remotely satisfying. Norman's tale, in particular, had a 'Seriously?!?!?' ending, that made me feel that slogging through 650 pages (maybe 150 of which featured Chad Fucking Mulligan) to get there. Very briefly: the African nation Beninia that Norman's company wants to both exploit and help (for a pretty cynical book, the corporation's motives are strangely un-arsehole-ish), has a history of non-violence that is remarkable --- despite grinding poverty and multiple warring tribal groups spilling over the borders, there hasn't been a single murder in fifteen years --- and which needs an explanation. And the explanation sucked big time.

While certainly interesting, I could only recommend this one to big sci-fi fans who are willing to find pleasure in the incidental details of an imaginary world. Brunner's setting is really very convincing, well thought through and imaginative. The way he applies that setting to the telling of a story is less convincing.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
books to go: 93

December 22, 2011

My Year of Regrets

Sorry about the silence on here recently. I don't have any other excuse other than to say that it's December, and I work in retail. If you've gone into a shop of any kind in the last two weeks, you'll know what I'm talking about.

On a happier note, that whole 'Death of the Book' thing that people have been going on about doesn't seem to actually be a thing that's happening. At all. At least, not if the store I work in is any sort of a guide. (Shameless plug: Avenue Bookstore in Albert Park, Melbourne. Come see us sometime.) You can't really give an e-book as a gift, can you? Even if it's only because of Christmas, the ink-and-paper kind of book will still be around for a long, long time.

Anyway, it's December, and I'm fucking exhausted (see picture). Hence, no blogs recently.

Starting today, though, you'll be getting a positive avalanche of year-end round-up type posts. Rather than the usual 'I liked/didn't like X, Y and Z,' I thought I'd begin with something slightly different.

This whole 'reading the stuff I already own' project is hard on two levels: one, there's a bunch of stuff I own that I figured I'd never read, ever (*cough* Proust *cough* Homer *cough* shitloads of others as well *cough*) and ploughing through them all will, at times, be a massive chore. But second, and by my reckoning even harder, is the fact that there are heaps of awesome-looking books being released all the time. And, working in a bookstore, I'm aware of every single bloody one of them. And they're always sitting there, right in the corners of my eyes, taunting me. So this first 2011 summation is not about books I've read, it's about books that have come out that I've really wanted to read, and haven't. These are my 'Regrets of the Year.'

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.

Arthur Phillips is the main character of his own novel, and the first part of the book details his youth, travelling the country with his itinerant, conman father and Shakespeare-obsessed sister. When his father, in jail for life, bequeaths the adult Arthur Phillips a complete 'lost' Shakespeare play called, funnily enough, The Tragedy of Arthur, he has no idea if it's genuine, or if it's his dad's last great sting. Sharing a similar structure to Nabokov's Pale Fire, the main text of the novel is the fictional Arthur Phillips' introduction to the also-fictional Shakespeare play, which is then reproduced in its full five-act glory at the end of the book.

Having the balls to write an entire play in Shakespearian language is one thing, pulling it off to such an extent that critics are raving is quite another. And, now that somebody's thought of it, who doesn't want to read a Shakespeare-type play dealing with Arthurian legend? A number of my colleagues have been going mental about this Tragedy of Arthur, and I really want to join in.

The Submission by Amy Waldman.

After the destruction of the World Trade Center, a competition is held for architects to design the memorial. To ensure the contest's fairness, it's conducted 'blind' --- nobody knows who designed which entry. The jury, which includes survivors and relatives of victims, finally come to a decision, open the envelope containing the winner's name ... and discover that they've chosen a design by an American Muslim. Cue political and emotional fallout.

There hasn't been an enormous amount of serious fiction dealing with the events of 9/11, and what there has been (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and Falling Man by Don DeLillo are the two that immediately come to mind), I haven't read. This rather simple concept strikes me as an elegant way of tackling the issues that arose in the aftermath of the attacks. In particular, it raises the question of 'Where Islam stands in relation to the West?' in a more nuanced way than is usual, and it explores the notion that an inclusive multi-culturalism is necessary for the success of pluralist democracies, and more necessary now than ever.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.

Trying to summarise this insanely-confusing-sounding book without having actually read it is probably the ultimate in foolish attempts at summation. Here goes anyway: our main character, Charles Yu, is a time-travel repairman who lives in his time machine so that time doesn't have to actually move forward. His dad invented time travel, then went missing. While trying to find the one day in the future where he and his father get to meet, Charles winds up stuck in a loop where he's both reading and writing a book called 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.' After that, I've no idea what the hell happens.

That's as much as I've been able to piece together from blurbs, reviews, and talking to a regular at the store who's read it and loved it. With this and Tragedy of Arthur (and Crash), I obviously have a thing for meta-fiction in which the author uses himself as the main character. I do love sci-fi, but a lot of what's coming out these days seems stuck in a bit of a rut, and this one caught my eye because it felt new and different and, bravest of all, fun.

The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites.

The only non-fiction on this list, The Toaster Project details Thwaites' attempt to build a toaster from scratch. That sounds reasonably simple, doesn't it? But what if I tell you that the simplest electric toaster he can find has 407 distinct parts? And that when he says 'from scratch,' he really means it? As in, he begins by visiting mines in Wales and digging metals out of the ground. There ain't no 'heading to the hardware store' here, he learns to smelt (I'm not even sure what smelting is), and he makes his own plastic ... pretty badly, if the picture on the cover is anything to go by.

Post industrial revolution, the vast majority of us are so disconnected from the fruits of our labour that the concept of making something with our bare hands is ridiculous. Right now I'm typing on a keyboard, looking at a monitor, and posting on the internet, but I have no clue how any of those things work, or what processes are needed to call them into existence. Thwaites' quest might be a little silly (what good quest isn't?), but I suspect that what this book has to say about the products we use so unthinkingly, and where they come from, might just be fascinating. 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

The other four books on this little list are by authors I've never read before. This one's a bit different. Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is one of the great books of this shiny new millenium, a beautiful novel that links the life story of a transgendered person with the history of the twentieth century, and uses the juxtaposition to shine new light on both. It's really stunning, and if you haven't read it, you damn well should.

So as soon as I heard that Eugenides had a new book coming, The Marriage Plot jumped to the top of my 'read that when I get a chance' pile. Everybody at the store was just as excited as me. We badgered the publisher's rep to get us advance copies. We chose it as the monthly read for our in-store bookclub. We were pumped.

Then it arrived, and people started reading it, and word trickled back to me. 'It's ... okay,' was the verdict. 'But it's no Middlesex.' And then I started reading the reviews. If I had to sum up the literary world's reaction to The Marriage Plot in one word, it would be 'disappointing.' My regret with this one is more to do with timing: I should have struck when the iron was hot, reading it when my expectation was peaking. Now it's no longer at the head of the queue of must-reads, and it'll probably be years, rather than months, before I bother. To feel this letdown by a book I haven't even read yet is probably stupid, but there it is.

So those are my top five regrets from 2011. When I get around to reading them, who knows whether I'll like them or not ... but until then I can still convince myself that they're five instant classics of indescribable beauty. (Not like Proust or Homer. That shit will never last ...)

Anybody got any recommendations for more good 2011 reads? Taunt me by sharing them in the comments. Please describe what's great about them in excruciating detail. I love it.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
books to go: 94