Aug 242014

Years of Rice and SaltIn Facebook terms, my relationship with Kim Stanley Robinson would be “complicated”. On one hand the themes and scope of his books tend to be interesting, but the novels themselves too slow-paced and packed with an ensemble of too many characters. I had a hard time with the Mars trilogy, but the weather/D.C. one went down much more easily.

Even if The Years of Rice and Salt was a single volume, it was both impressively thick and covered an ambitiously long stretch of history. Hence I approached it with apprehension.

Years of Rice and Salt describes an alternate history where the plague decimates Europe and the other cultures thrive instead. Obviously the beginning resembles our world closely, but the history indeed turns alternative quickly.

The main narrative device is an odd one – reincarnated characters that meet each other throughout the millennia, vaguely understanding that they have encountered each other previously. The scenes in the various purgatories and other spiritual locations are at rather severe odds with the otherwise moderate plot. At first the device surprises, then it gets annoying and towards the end of the novel (consisting of ten separate periods and clusters of the characters) it’s pretty much par for the course.

The book encompasses the whole world, the evolution of civilization and plenty of conflicts. The perspective varies quite a bit both geographically and ethnographically, but vast stretches of the world (Oceania, once again, expectedly) remain essentially undescribed. The perspective varies also from almost purely personal to scientific discovery, and as such some of the chapters make for much drier reading than the others.

Nowhere near the laborious slog I originally anticipated, Years of Rice and Salt was actually a pleasant book to read. The episodic nature made it a good fit for commuting. More enlightening than entertaining, but a fresh take on the genre of alternate history (this is history from a social perspective as opposed to that of great individuals and nations only).

Aug 122014

For The WinI quite liked Cory Doctorow’s first foray into targeting a younger audience. But his For The Win doesn’t reach the heights attained by Little Brother.

Then again, the subject matter in this book is not as interesting as a geek coming to grips with the effects of ubiquitous overwatch in modern San Francisco.

Nope. For The Win centers on two topics I’m not familiar at all with. I have never played MMO games nor lived in a developing country where the unwashed masses are put to work as farmers of virtual gold for the more well-off western players.

For The Win tackles the subject with an ensemble cast – the issues of the gold farmers are left, right and center of the varied cast. The milieu is a slightly advanced future, the games more than renamed entities of things currently in the market.

The exposition of politics and economics is nowhere near heavy-handed, but neither really works as the carrying arc of the book either. History of unionization has probably never been as entertainingly described as in this book. But this is a book that’s a bit too thick, quite a slow starter and without much of an engaging cast. So in the end, it just isn’t very entertaining a read, after all.

Aug 122014

MicrotrendsI expected Microtrends to be insightful and entertaining. It didn’t really reach either of those targets, but it wasn’t an utter failure either.

The book’s central concept is that population is splintering into so many sub-tribes that it may very well make sense to cater to one of them.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t really explore its central thesis further, but devotes the vast bulk of its pages to outlining said identified groups.

Some of them make very much sense (people with two houses), some are inherently outdated (videogaming has moved on quite a bit) and some just plain wrong (Zune wasn’t excactly the leader of social music revolution).

The writing is often boring, as if the author, too, would have got fed up with the unending parade of people grouped by a single factoid.

Interesting as an idea, but falls flat in execution.

Aug 122014

Dark Knight ReturnsBack in 1987 (or so) the finnish translation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was an unexpected return to the realm of superhero comics I had written off as childish pastimes the year before (the domestic edition of X-Men having started on not so good storylines following the dissolution of the Claremont/Byrne-duo). But sadly, like so many things in high school, this was a discovery made too late – by the time we found out about the awesomeness of the four issue series, the first three installment had been sold out. Borrowing them from friends with a better taste was no match to owning the whole.

Needless to say, the publisher didn’t do a re-run, and we settled for the next piece of goodness: Year One.

I finally picked up the Titan Comics edition a couple of years later, and what a feast it was. And still is. Year after year. Re-read after re-read.

This, alongside Watchmen turned an entire genre upside down, and they have not been improved on since. Which is more than a little sad, since both of them are closing in on thirty years already.

Frank Miller’s take on an aging Batman is a cruel but deftly drawn one. Gotham City has deteriorated, as has the rest of the world. A world quite well resembling our own (with a Ronald Reagan for the U.S. president) yet subtly different (the island republic of Corto Maltese whose crisis pulls the globe to brink of nuclear war).

The script is merciless, it combines classic characters with modern cruelty and throws in surgically aimed stabs at the american society.

An awesome graphic novel, that should be read by anybody with any interest in comics. Or a good story.

Aug 102014

MapheadI have a new literary hero!

Ken Jennings, the man who ran rings around Jeopardy! for months turned out to be a witty, informative and interesting author.

The subject matter, maps and geography, of his Maphead could have been a lethally boring detailed dive into a single niche or a shallow overview of the subject. Fortunately, it is neither.

The author covers the subject from multiple perspectives and injects enough personal experiences (and occasional verbal zingers) into the tales to keep the book consistently interesting.

The book begins with the maps and the state of geography as a school subject, but is soon routed to geocaching, countryspotters and other quite expected geography-related hobbies. A chapter devoted to imaginary countries around the midpoint is an unexpected detour.

Unlike Map Addict, an earlier foray into the heads of map enthusiasts, Maphead refrains from being snarky, is not opposed to electronic mapping aids and is overall a much more pleasant book to read.

Best non-fiction book in a long time, and a good reason to seek out Jennings’ other books, too.

Aug 102014

Vilpittömästi SinunSince I liked Parantaja so much, I gave a chance to another new finnish mystery author, too: Pekka Hiltunen’s Vilpittömästi Sinun (Cold Courage in english) is a decent book, too, but doesn’t reach the heights of the former.

I had a hard time getting to grips with the book. It starts off well in chick-lit mode, but does get significantly better as the plot thickens. At times the author even manages to press the suspense-button rather well, at others there’s long stretches of rambling dialogue that doesn’t really add anything to the whole.

While the protagonist is believable enough, the second main character exhibits quasi-supernatural properties which do not click well within the milieu of 2010s London.

There’s two main plotlines in the book, and while a lot of effort is expended on both, they both seem to overflow their bounds without intersecting at all.

Though a lot remains unexplained in the book, this is an independent work. Hence I was more than a bit surprised to hear that this is just a first volume in a series. I’ll keep an eye out for the second volume, too.

Aug 102014

Inside OutI’ve been a Pink Floyd fan since high school, but my Floyd-Fu has occasionally been embarrassingly low. Below the surface of the obvious (Waters/Gilmour fallout, Syd Barrett’s spiral out of the band) there’s a lot more to know, and Nick Mason’s Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd does a decent job in filling out plenty of gaps.

The book begins well before the band was founded (and subsequently named) and ends well after the band was finished (the Live 8 performance notwithstanding). Nick Mason, the drummer of Pink Floyd, covers the more than two decades’ worth of ups, downs and odd sideways movements, too. Despite the sometimes chilly interpersonal times in the band the history remains surprisingly cordial, and no-one gets called out on running the biggest progressive rock band aground. Then again, the lack of communication between members seems to be a chronic source of misunderstandings.

For such a visual band as Pink Floyd, the book certainly would have benefited from a vastly larger (and colored!) selection of pictures.

Inside Out is an interesting book, but unexpectedly boring at times. But that’s not a major sin. However, the book being devoid of stories behind the songs is one such – though as the author had very little to do with most of the lyrics, he understandably avoids putting words into others’ mouths.

Aug 032014

Ceti RevisitedI bought Risto Isomäki’s Ceti Revisited in Finncon last year, and was quite a bit mystified by the blurb: had the alarmist environmentalist truly been able to write a book about the dangers of communicating with extraterrestrial intelligences.

The initial steps were good indeed. Theory and history of the topic were more or less adequate, but before long the author jumped back onto his favorite hobby horses. He has used both methane clatrates and coastal nuclear power stations a lot in the past, and it turns out that this book is no exception. A sizable chunk of a book on communicating with distant stellar neighbours devolves into the well-trodden paths. Paths that have no new content since he last wallowed in them or any meaningful connection to the book itself.

Great premise utterly spoiled by the authors perennial mannerisms.

Aug 032014

in Other WordsChristopher J. Moore’s In Other Words is a beautiful sideswipe at the variability of languages and cultures.

A short cross-section of words and expressions from around the world that make language such a fun topic.

The selection ranges from seen this to way beyond eclectic, with plenty of interesting midway stops along the path.

A short nice read, and one that would really benefit from a consistently updated website that continues the work begun here.

(And yes, this is very much the same concept as Adam Jacot de Boinod’s Tingo, which is an exquisitely crafted book as well).