The Reading List

I haven't done one of these lately, and it feels as though my reading list has accumulated a bit too much. Recently, I've picked up and finished A Handmaiden's Tale, The Stars My Destination, and New Scientists' Arc 1.1, all of which were very good. Here's what I'm currently reading:

Fiction:

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi: This one's one that I've had my eyes on for a little while, but it was a review from Charlie Stross that got me more interested in reading it. It's gotten very good reviews from all over, which is great for a first novel, although his writing style isn't the greatest for an impatient and fast reader like me - I'm having to slow down for fear of missing things.

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: io9 recently pointed this one out in a book review, and I loved the premise. It's a fascinating read, and from a science fiction era that I'm really not familiar with: Cold War Soviet SF. So far, I'm really enjoying it.

The Nemesis List, by R.J. Frith: I came across this one randomly right before the wedding, when I was supposed to be buying wedding gifts for people. I'd never heard of it, despite the plot, and picked it up on a whim. So far, it's not impressing me, reminding me a lot of The Gravity Pilot in terms of writing style.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed: I've heard almost nothing but good things about this novel, and decided it was about time to sink into it. On the way back from the Wedding, Megan and I stopped by Flights of Fantasy in Albany, NY, where I found it. Enjoyed the first couple of chapters.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, by John Scalzi: I've been waiting to get to this one since it was announced. I enjoyed Scalzi's last novel, Fuzzy Nation, and this looks to be pretty similar in style and tone, and having a nice, breezy novel to blow through will be excellent.

Nonfiction:

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, by Nicholas de Monchaux: This book rocks. It's absolutely stunning in its detail, covering the creation of the space suits used in Apollo, but taking in a greater view of the space race as it does so.

The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education, by Craig M. Mullaney: Megan recommended this one to me as I was doing some writing, and it's an interesting read thus far, looking at the education of a West Point soldier who went on to Iraq.

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, by John A. Nagl: This one's one that I've been picking away at for a couple of months. It's a short but dense book on counterinsurgency. Very enlightening.

Currently Reading

I have a feeling that my reading will become a little more convoluted in a bit when I have a couple of reviewer copies coming in, and with a couple of books on the docket right at the moment, with some others in the queue, I need to get my head straight.

Battle: The Story of the Bulge, by John Toland

This is a definitive history of the Battle of the Bulge, one that I'm reading and referencing for the Battle of the Bulge project that I've been working on. I've also read through Gen. (RET) Ernest Harmon's Combat Commander and John Eisenhower's The Bitter Woods, which is yielding a lot of really good, detailed information on the strategic nature of the battle, but also some of the tactical elements as well. It's helping me fill in a number of blanks with some of the units that I'm currently researching. Toland's book is detailed, readable and very interesting.

Blackout, by Connie Willis

This is a book that I've had my eye on for a little while, and I bumped it up the list after trying - and failing - to get through Catherynne Valente's The Habitation of the Blessed. Keeping with the World War II theme, this story follows a couple of 2060 Oxford history students who have been going back in time to study various points. Things are starting to heat up a bit, and the book is moving along nicely. I can't wait to get further through it.

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

This is lauded as one of the best books to come out about Vietnam ever. I met (and got to talk with) Mr. Marlantes when he was presented the Colby Award for the novel - it's awarded to an outstanding first work dealing with military matters, and it joins a prestigious group of books. It's based loosely on his experiences in Vietnam, and while it's a big book, I'm taking my time with this one, taking in the language and the story. It's quite something so far.

Welcome To The Greenhouse: New Science Fiction On Climate Change, edited by Gordon Van Gelder

This book is one that caught my eye and I'm set to review it once I finish it. It covers what I'm predicting will be the next wave or dominant theme of science fiction: global warming (along the same lines that the Cold War dominated science fiction) and while some of the stories here haven't been that great, there have been some outstanding ones. I think thus far, the anthology succeeds when the stories are well grounded in reality, and I hope that the stories coming up are like that.

Coming up after this batch of books are a couple of new books that came in yesterday: Catherynne Valente's Deathless and John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation, along with Jack Campbell’s latest addition, Dreadnaught, in his Lost Fleet series, as well as Spectyr, by Philippa Ballantine, all slated for reviews over the next month or so. Along with those, there are a couple of other books that I want to tackle after that: Ian M. Bank's Use of Weapons is one that's high up on the list, as well as William Gibson's Spook Country (and eventually, Zero History), as well as N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Kingdom. China Mieville's upcoming novel, Embassytown, is also high up there, with a number of good reviews already.

There's also a couple of non-fiction books that I'd like to get to. I need to get through to Footprints in the Dust, edited by Colin Burgess, about the Apollo 12-17 missions back in the 1970s, part of the Outward Odyssey series. I've fallen off that bandwagon for a little while as I read Ambassadors from Earth, and was put off by the horrid text, but this one looks like it'll interest me a bit more. I've picked up a couple of other books as well: John Keegan's First World War (A war I know precious little about), Thucydides, about the study of history and the upcoming Falling to Earth, by Francis French, about astronaut Al Worden.

There's a lot more beyond that, but it's a start.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Ted Chiang's longest work to date, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, is a fascinating story that takes a bit of a new look at how an artificial intelligence might develop. The story is understated, quiet and humble, but is exciting and touching at the same time. This was a story that I absolutely devoured in a single sitting that stretched late into the night, something that rarely happens with any story.

The book's description includes a quote from Alan Turing that helps to set this story apart from other robot stories:

“Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again I do not know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be tried.”

The story follows Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks as their own lives intertwines over the course of a decade. Software AI has been achieved, and is a growing industry at the start of the novella, one that changes as the story progresses. Fans of stories such as I, Robot or other reads about robotics will find this to be a vastly different type of story, and for that reason, it's very refreshing. Working to create Digients, a sort of artificial intelligence profile or avatar online, we see the introduction of Jax, Marco and Polo, who essentially grow up under the care of Ana and Derek.

Fiction is a product of our own lives and surroundings. Lifecycles is a good example of how Chiang was able to take a very old story type (Man creating life himself) and create something that feels new and fresh. Very often, our perceptions of robotics are shaped by dramatic presentations such as The Terminator, or The Matrix, stories that predict that the rise of a robotic race will automatically deduce that the human race will be pegged for extinction. Similarly, it’s also assumed that a comprehensive knowledge and sheer logical reasoning will prove to be a superior mind.

Chiang takes on the other side suggested by Turing in his approach to the development of an artificial intelligence, which strikes me as a far more realistic method for developing a viable computer intelligence: you make them grow up. This happens over the decade that the story takes place, but it’s far more complicated than that. In other stories, there’s never really a reason for creating a robot, or at the very least, there’s no reason given for developing a new mind. Here, it’s very much the same thing, but the reasons are stark: it’s a business, and there’s little demand for highly realistic artificial avatars that talk back or cause problems as they’re developing.

The important thing here is that there are some major philosophical issues at the heart of any sort of AI, especially when one is assuming that it will be a being along the same lines of a human: can they be purpose driven, or is there any intent to their design? Religious arguments aside, I don’t see any particular purpose to human beings, just a happy accident of chemistry and circumstances at the right time billions of years ago. So to, would a machine guided by rigid logical programming be the same thing? I think not, although the appearance could be replicated somewhat with fast programming.

Intelligence is also complicated: it’s not just that a robot would have to have 700 million languages at its disposal, or whatever actions pre-programmed into it: any such being really isn’t truly free as people seem to be. Rather, complicated intelligence (and this is from my own limited understanding) comes more with the ability to draw connections between different, unrelated things. Driving along one route, I try to infer what lies between another road that’s running parallel to me, based on what I can see in between the two locations. My dog sees my sister and realizes that not only is she outside, but that if she runs to the window, she’ll see her as she runs down into the yard. These types of responses aren’t ones that I can’t see being rigidly programmed into a computer, but are things that will learned from experience.

Interestingly, the book has far more in common with another, slightly lesser known story from Isaac Asimov (and film adaptation), The Bicentennial Man, which sees a robot learn to become a human, going to the extreme and replacing metal for flesh. I greatly enjoyed the movie (I’ve never understood the hate that it seems to elicit), and The Lifecycle of Software Objects takes some similar lines of reasoning and does them in a far better fashion.

Set amongst a sort of tech boom that would be familiar to anyone who used the internet since the 1990s, companies come and go, but the people remain, and find their own way through life. In a large way, the cover is exceedingly deceptive here, because this isn’t a story about robots, it’s a story about people who deal with robots, and one another. Chiang does a marvelous job here, setting the lives of two people in a mere thirty thousand words, where things never feel like they are rushed or that anything major has been glossed over.

Where there’s the approach to growing an intelligence, there’s a lot to be said for the people on the other side of the equation. As we watch the trio of Digients grow up in their own little world (and a times, jumping into a robot body that their owners have for them), it’s apparent that they’re as much a product of their parents than their surroundings, and that frequently, their upbringing has as much an impact on themselves as it does their caretakers. What I found most fascinating is that this isn’t really a story about robots at all: they’re central to the plot, but the real point here is in the long relationship between Ana and Derek, and how two people who are so similar can be so far apart and estranged from one another. It’s a love story in its own right, between the two humans, but also for a parent for their creation. In doing so, Chiang presents an interesting idea that robots and artificial intelligences wouldn’t be so different from us, and that the creation of an AI isn’t any different than parenting.

The story is also available online, here.

The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games one of the latest young adult novels that's made a huge splash. The book's trilogy has recently finished up with Mockingjay, and a movie is currently in the works. Young adult fiction is experiencing a boom right now, with a lot of attention paid towards the genre since Harry Potter reinvigorated things over the last ten years. Even more for the books, a number of the recent hits steer very closely towards the speculative fiction side of the house, from Harry Potter to Twilight to the Hunger Games.

Coming highly recommended after I had finished up another YA novel (Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi) last year, Collins' novel is a straightforward affair that is both dark but hitting all of the proper high points for the teen readers that this is steered towards.

Set in an indeterminate future in North America, the United States has ceased to exist, replaced with a nation called Panem after a devastating war. Ruled by an autocratic Capitol, 13 districts around the country have become incredible specialized, providing the nation with specific goods. The story's heroine, Katniss Everdeen, hails from District 12 and becomes involved with a yearly spectacle called The Hunger Games.

Every year, two children, Tributes, are selected at random from each district and brought to the Capitol. There, they are brought into an arena where they fight to the death. Following the creation of Panem, a rebellion from the 13 districts was quashed, and in retaliation, the Capitol demonstrated its grasp over its subjects through the games.

The idea came out of channel surfing as Collins flipped between reality television and coverage of the recent Iraq war. The result is a horrific combination of events, where children are forced to kill one another on live television. The book, as the title suggests, covers Katniss's experiences in the arena, as she shoots, stabs and otherwise works to survive, while the wealthy residents of the Capital and other districts watch on.

I've begun to understand the rise of Young Adult fiction over the past couple of years: it's a very clear-cut way to get across a story with very clear morals. Working at the bookstore years ago, it's easy to ridicule the housewives who came in gushing about Twilight, but I get it now: the books aren't complicated in the stories that they tell, but have a number of interesting teaching points throughout.

The Hunger Games very much falls into this category. Where I expected some elements of ethics on killing your fellow tributes, this wasn't as clear cut as I'd anticipated. Katniss teams up with her fellow District 12 tribute towards the end, and allies herself with others with mutual goals. The result is a story of trust, friendship and quite a bit of violence.

The story wanders at points - like the character, I lost track of time in the story as she wandered back and forth, trying to survive, and the prose leaves a bit to be desired at other points. But, the tale is a fantastic dystopian story that is both exciting and engaging, and while I'm not sure that I'll get to books 2 and 3 at any point soon, it's a story that I'd recommend.

The Future of Publishing?

SF Signal has an excellent topic this week for their mind-meld, a gathering of experts in the field who commentate on a common subject. This week's topic looks to the future of a field that's central to the speculative fiction genres: Publishing. The responses are well worth looking at and reading over, especially for those who are interested in writing professionally, or for fans who are wondering where their fix will be coming from next.

The short answer consensus seems to be that publishing, books, stories and everything isn't going anywhere, but the field will see major changes in book distribution and creation, not to mention the publishing rights of authors. eBooks and dedicated readers seem to have thrown most everyone through a loop as they scramble to figure out just what's going on, and trying to make their best guesses on where the industry will step next, which is in turn dependent on a number of factors outside of the publishing industry's control.

To be fair, books have had their own share of issues throughout recent memory, although the challenges here are a bit bigger. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a massive amount of consolidation of bookstores as major chains worked their way into existence, causing quite a lot of soul searching and closings of independent bookstores as a result. The bigger stores seem to have met their match as Amazon.com roared past them, because it could do things differently, and better than a physical bookstore. With eBooks, the troubles come as established markets find that their models for selling books is potentially undermined by an entirely new way to sell books, bringing in a number of new challenges and opportunities to the publishing world.

Every single online conversation about books seems to turn to the eBook market, with people coming down on two sides: "I LOVE EBOOKS, I READ SO MANY OF THEM!" and the "I LIKE THE SMELL OF PAPER AND THE WEIGHT OF THE BOOK IN MY HANDS!" crowds, both of which miss a major point: all that the platform does as function, whether physical or a computer, is content delivery. The same book exists in both realms, and as Lou Anders points out: "... it's always been about the content, not the delivery mechanism." Publishers have an extra option that just didn't exist in any major way, and they are slowly waking up to the possibilities that electronic books will allow. The popularity of eBook readers is a good thing, I think.

The move to electronic formats does allow for a split between hard-copy 'traditional' books, and eBooks in ways that really hasn't been touched on yet. When I attended ReaderCon, one presenter, Leah Bobet, noted that there are impressive things that electronic books can do: interactive features, links to relevant content and ways to read books in very different ways than we can now. Cheryl Morgan notes the very same thing this time around: essentially special features that can get tacked on to what you're reading. With that line of thinking, books are poised to change a lot: multiple editions of the bigger books, with stripped down text for those who just want the story, or special features for the top of the line products. Some books already have these sorts of incentives: interviews with authors, reading guides, and previews of upcoming novels.

Despite this, I don't think that hard-copy books will go away any time soon. There is enough market demand for hard-copy books, and the medium has had a long, long head start on the eBook revolution, which is still working its way through its early days. EBooks are certainly popular, and will grow to be even more so as the market shakes out the big obstacles. I suspect that we'll see the end of dedicated eBook readers such as the Nook and the Kindle (sorry, Barnes and Noble and Amazon), in favor of multiple use devices such as the iPad, or dedicated eBook readers such as the Sony Digital Reader as a universal format is adopted by stores and publishers alike. The ability to read a book on multiple devices, I think, will be more important that the actual proprietary hardware that we have now. This is a lesson that online magazines are finding, and I suspect that while the Kindle has a good run right now, it'll become a bit more open and accepting of other formats.

While e-readers might become a bit more open, I can see exclusivity remaining, becoming a major factor in how stories are sold, coupled with how chain stores might try to stay in the game. A couple of years ago, Borders released an exclusive book through their stores. I was a bookseller at the time, and this was a book that had been pushed quite heavily, and through the company's efforts, it did fairly well, although I can't figure out what the title of the book was or who the author was. The experiment doesn't seem to have been as much of a success, because I haven't seen anything like it since then (although I'm not quite in the same loop as I was before), but I think it's an idea that has merit, and that it'll be experimented with again.

There's little doubt that major book sellers are having their own issues at the moment: too much stock, not enough of it selling, and it's likely that we'll see Borders fail in the next couple of years, if not sooner. Amazon and Barnes and Noble, I suspect, are going to be far better off because of their own efforts to integrate web sales and ebook readers earlier than their competitors. These are large organizations that nobody wants to see fail: the loss of a major bookstore is something that authors and publishers don't want, because of the potential to reach a large number of loyal customers, and the companies themselves don't want to die off. The chain stores are here to stay, I suspect, despite the swan songs of their demise, simply because they have the potential to sell a lot of books to a lot of people. They might be facing some major changes, but I would doubt that we'll see the current companies die off, or at least not without some sort of replacement in one form or another.

If there's anything that the Kindle has demonstrated, it's that exclusive things do work: the Kindle's done quite well, and where Borders has attempted their own exclusive things, I would predict that the major bookstores, in their efforts to stay relevant, will move a bit into the publishing field. It makes a bit of sense: they have experience with the market and the books that they know work. The only piece that's missing is that they are only an outlet. Moving to begin selling their own books (Barnes and Noble already sells its own editions of a number of classics) would allow them to drum up a reason for people to come to their stores. Imagine if an author such as John Grisham or a similarly well-exposed author came out with a book that only sold at Barnes and Noble, published exclusively through them: it couldn't be sold through Amazon.com or other competitors, and would get a fair amount of visibility through internal marketing and so forth. I can imagine that there would be a bit of anger from other authors, author groups and other stores, but large groups of dedicated readers would buy them. The trickle-down effect would be slow, with other authors jumping on if it works, and other bookstore chains copying the idea, slowly opening it up to more and more people, splitting the market up a bit, and giving the chains a bit of an edge over juggernauts such as Amazon.com.

There are a lot of assumptions here: the internet might not be the same, and as some people noted, the idea of net neutrality is slowly dying and the internet is changed radically. I don't know that it'll be as bad or as better than what people are imagining now, but major changes in how the internet works will spell major changes in how books are sold: another reason why physical books might remain longer than expected from those already writing their obituaries.

But, as has been stated already: the mediums in which books are sold are merely content delivery systems that bring the stories to the reader. Regardless of how that plays out, there is plenty of demand for books, and as such, I've little doubt that there will need to be in place editorial and distribution elements for the serious efforts. One thing is for sure: we're in for an interesting ride.

Hull Zero Three

Greg Bear's book Hull Zero Three opens much the same way as any number of science fiction thrillers: someone awakes, enclosed in a stasis booth, and finds themselves in a strange situation. Pandorum, Avatar, Pitch Black, Supernova and others all have this as a bit of a start to the film, to varying degrees, a cold open to the story. This book is no different, and our main character is ripped from his dream-state and out into a cold and hostile environment. The resulting book is straightforward, fast and overall, a decent read.

Hull Zero Three was a book that I've been interested in reading, if anything because I've never read a Greg Bear book, and it represented a bit of a change of pace compared to what I've been reading recently. This book falls between the space opera, hard science fiction and horror as the protagonist, simply known as Teacher. He meets up with a strange assortment of fellow characters as they escape through the ship to find out not only what the ship's purpose is, but what theirs is as well.

The easiest comparison can be made between this book and the film Pandorum, where the book gets all of the things that the film missed. Where the film missed huge plot points that could have made it a great film, Hull Zero Three gets them, in a way. The ship (known only as Ship) is a generational ship, one designed to seed a far-away star with life. The reasons are never really disclosed, but they don't matter here - the ship is moving forward, and along the way, problems crop up.

This is where the book is at its best, with some of the exposition and background to the story. The ship was created, sent out to the Oort Cloud to capture a moonlet, and then off to a far off world in which to continue earth-based life. Somewhere along the way, it's discovered that the planet is inhabited, and this is where the fun begins: do you colonize the planet at the risk of overcoming the life that's already there? In this case, the civilization on the planet attacked the ship, damaging it and setting much fo the story into action.

At points, I was confused as to what was happening throughout the story. Bear pulls the reader through as one fumbles through a tunnel. There's no frame of reference for the main characters or the reader, and that adds a certain thrill to trying to find out what's happening with the story as a whole. Many of the interesting parts of the book happen before the story actually takes place, and we're left with a glorified hunt and search on the part of our characters to learn what their purpose in life is.

The interesting part of the story doesn't come until the end, after Teacher and the other mutated and purposed people discover the dangers of the ship, and come across a power-struggle that seems to have caused additional damage to the ship between Mother and the Destination Guidance team, who saw conflicting interpretations of their orders: preserve human life. One saw their best option as the selected planet, while the other wanted to go on and try somewhere else. The result is a civil war on the ship, and the book comes down to one of its fundamental points: how do you program ethics?

Teacher, and all of his companions were produced and copied from Mother. In the case of some of the people, they were designed with very specific purposes - teaching, cleanup, killing, protection, etc. While they are designed specifically for a purpose, there are gaps where they question their own existence and purpose. It's an interesting element to the story, and while it was a bit of unexpected depth, it wasn't enough to really dazzle me as a brilliant story. At the end of the day, Hull Zero Three was a fun, light read, one that is a better version of similar stories, but one that I found myself wishing that other parts of the story had gotten more attention.

The Dervish House

Last year, I picked up Ian McDonald's fantastic science fiction novel River of Gods and loved his take on an India of the future. With his latest book, The Dervish House, McDonald relocates to Turkey of 2027. Rarely do I come across a book that absolutely floors me, and where River of Gods really impressed me, The Dervish House completely bowled me over with its interconnecting storylines, fantastic prose and wonderful characters.

Set in Istanbul, the book starts off with a literal bang as a suicide bomber blows her head off. The only casualty, the bomber seems to have failed, and the attack starts off a week that sees a heat wave over the city. There are five separate story lines to keep track of throughout the book: Can, a young boy with a heart condition who's treatment leaves him deafened and sequestered away at home, Georgios Ferentinou, a retired professor of experimental economics, who sees danger in the growing nanotechnology revolution, Ayşe, an arts dealer set off on a quest to find a legendary Mellified Man, Yasar Ceylan, a businessman working to build a start-up nanotech firm that has the potential to revolutionize civilization and Necdet, a former drug addict who sees a woman blow her head off and begins having strange visions around him. Together, these stories interlock over the course of a week.

The principle innovation here in McDonald's world is nanotechnology (where in River of Gods, it was Artificial Intelligences), and while this is clearly a futuristic world, it remains firmly grounded in what's likely one of the more realistic science fiction stories that I've read thus far: the rules are still the same. Throughout, McDonald covers a lot of territory: grey goo scenarios, market manipulation, fundamentalism and mysteries. Istanbul, it would seem, is the perfect location for such a story, with an ancient history behind it, helping to set up a juxtaposition between the future and the past.

In particular, I was blown away by the vivid nature of the book. Like his other book, I had to take my time with this, getting into the right mindset, and absorbing the story as it came along. The payoff is incredible: entire sections come across fully realized, and I couldn't help but wonder what a film adaptation would look like (and I would absolutely love to see this film translated into a motion picture someday). While it’s dense and occasionally wanders (there are a couple of plot points that help to support, but only just) the book is rich in detail and in its prose. There are only a couple of books out there that I've loved for the same reasons: Suzanne Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell comes to mind, as does J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Comparing these books is a non-starter (I’m not saying that this is better or worse than any of those), but coming away from this story left me with a similar impression: I got quite a bit out of this book, on all levels.

Of all the stories that the book goes through, the two that hit me the most was Can and Ayşe’s own story arcs. Can, armed with a modular robotic toy that can take several shapes (Bird, Snake, Rat and Monkey), fancies himself as a Boy Detective, and from the safety of his home, he attempts to piece together the bombing that his witnessed through his robot, uncovering clues and going after Necdet after the man is kidnapped. This storyline shone above all, and Can is possibly catapulted himself to become one of my favorite fictional characters – masterfully crafted and characterized, McDonald does everything right with his storyline, capturing the enthusiasm, optimism and creativity of a young boy with an impressive imagination.

Ayşe’s storyline is also an impressive one, as she’s tasked with tracking down a Mellified Man – a mummy preserved in honey, used for healing – This is a real legend, but it’s unclear as to whether there’s actually any basis in truth for it. Ayşe takes us throughout the city and through parts of its history on her search, reminding me a little of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, at points, abit one where the characters work off the books and with fewer Nazis.

The other storylines are all important, on a number of locations, but none struck me quite the same way as the aforementioned do. But, as a whole, the weave together an interesting book that is rooted in reality, and gets a lot of things dead on in conceptualization, particularly when it comes to fundamentalism and terrorism. McDonald appears to realize that the conflict between fundamentalism and a liberal society are political issues that will continue onwards far into the future, but also understands the downsides of terrorism: killing people typically turns people against one’s cause, and the world presented here seems a bit more peaceful with that realization, although the goals might still be in the same place. One of the plots involves the distribution of Nano-agents to a larger population through gas pipelines, agents that will effectively turn people into fundamentalists. It’s a frightening scenario, one that brings up some questions: can faith be imbued in someone artificially? The book doesn't quite go on to use that more than a plot point, but its existence that is just hinted on is interesting, and McDonald steers clear of delving too much into the theoretical, leaving that up to the readers and the character’s own speculations.

At the end of the book, I was reluctant to put it away on the shelf: The Dervish House was easily one of the best books that I’ve read in the past year, up there with last year’s favorite reads: The City and The City by China Mieville, and Horns by Joe Hill. If I’d finished a month earlier, it would have been a grand way to round out 2010. Instead, it’s set an incredibly high bar for 2011 - not a bad way to start the year.

Grey, by Jon Armstrong

A recent book caught my eyes in the bookstore the other day: Jon Armstrong's second novel, Yarn, with a gorgeous cover and an interesting looking storyline. In the midst of deciding which book to get, two others won out, and it was returned to the shelf. Followup research showed that I should have gone for it, and further searches in nearby stores came up empty.

Over the course of reading up on Yarn, I discovered that the author's first book, Grey, was set in the same universe, setting up Armstrong's particular brand of fiction, labeled 'Fiction-Punk'. Better still, the publisher, Nightshade Books, had an advance reader's copy of the book up on their website, for a free download. (You can get it here.)

Grey is a quick, funny read, with a couple of caveats and assumptions to go along with that. Set in a near future dystopia, Michael Rivers is the son of a family member, part of the elite, in a world where pop culture and consumerism has run amok, in the most ridiculous fashion possible. While reading the book, I'm operating on the assumption that this book shifted more towards the satirical than rational. Rivers is a celebrity, and where reality television runs every day, with talk show hosts and talking heads talking nonstop to his own egotistical father who has a documentary filmed of his life as he's living it, reediting it as he goes.

Fashion takes a front seat in this book, and Armstrong's descriptions of the fashion of this world is a fun one. Despite the book's title, there's multiple colors everywhere, with people wearing some of the strangest things throughout, at least in the expensive and livable areas. It's not an area where one will think about science fiction, but it's clear that there's a lot of inspiration taken from the costuming of numerous films here, and if anything, this film breaks the reader out of the mold that this book is merely a continuation of suburban America.

Despite the label 'fashionpunk', this book isn't really about fashion: it's a fairly acute look at the direction of a consumerist culture. Once the absurdity is stripped away from the book (mainly in the language of most of the characters), it's a downright scary look at how things could be several decades from now. Some things remain very much the same: an obsession with celebrity and instant gratification, where companies live and die by their ratings and public perception, rather than their actual internal workings.

This is an entertaining book - one that was a bit of fun to read, although I do hope that Yarn (which I now have) turns out to be a bit better. The plot for this story was rather loose at times, and there are some elements (Michael's origins - cobbled together from parts from his numerous sibblings comes to mind) where I thought there should have been more emphasis, and there's a bit of wandering here and there as the book progresses.

But, Grey is an entertaining, with some very dark undercurrents to it, and some very fun parts (Who wouldn't enjoy professional ironing championships in a fashion-oriented world?) as well. I'm even more excited about Yarn after finishing it.

Brave New Worlds

John Joseph Adams has distinguished himself in the past with outstanding speculative fiction anthologies, from Wastelands to The Living Dead and others. His latest volume, Brave New Worlds, is perhaps one of the finest sets of short fiction that I've ever read, with a stunning table of contents and authors to tell their stories of oppression.

Brave New Worlds is a complete turnaround from Wastelands, an anthology that looks at humanity after the demise of civilization. Here, the focus is on societies where government has not only remained, but strengthened to the point where the people themselves become the enemies of the state. It's an incredibly frightening future, and one that feels far more relevant to today's world than most works. The argument between Republicanism and Federalism is a familiar one to anybody who has tuned into the news over the past couple of years.

Indeed, this anthology came to me at a time of personal political crisis. The past couple of years have been ones of discussion, learning and thinking about the differences in political parties, and what these sorts of things mean at the end of day and down the road. The idea of an overly strong state that impinges upon the rights of its citizens is something that is undesirable to me, and what our country represents. Numerous actions taken by the government have had a speculative-fiction feel to it, such as the detainees in Guantanamo Bay and the kill order against a radical cleric overseas, to the authority of the Transportation Security Administration following some terrorist attacks. It is a frightening future, but one that also needs to be balanced against the idea of a libertarian world where little order or government control exists to keep people from killing or harming one another. As such, Brave New Worlds is scary much in the same way that Wastelands (of what I've read and heard of it) was scary: it exists at the other extreme end of the political spectrum.

There are a good number of fantastic stories here. The anthology starts off with Shirley Jackson's classic story The Lottery and continues to tell a great number of tales such as S.K. Gilbow's Red Card, where people are assigned by their state randomly to kill lawbreakers, Ten With A Flag by Joseph Paul Haines that sees citizens given rankings based on their potential and Geriatric Ward by Orson Scott Card, which sees people who have vastly accelerated life spans. One of my absolute favorites is Jordan's Waterhammer by Joe Mastroianni, a tale of miners valued only as tools. Many of the stories here were fairly new to me: I'd either heard of them by reputation or read them once long ago, while there were also a fair number of stories that I have read before, such as Carrie Vaughn's Amaryllis (published on Adam's online science fiction magazine Lightspeed), Philip K. Dick's Minority Report and Paolo Bacigalupi's disturbing Pop Squad. There are few of the stories that I didn't get into, such as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin and O Happy Day! by Geoff Ryman, simply not suiting my own tastes for any number of reasons, but these were few and far between.

What impressed me even more than the excellent lineup of stories and authors was that the anthology didn't feel repetitive. There are plenty of short stories and novellas that fall into the dystopian category, but one could have easily told story after story of an intrepid citizen standing up and fighting the power, so to speak. That certainly happens, in their own ways, but there's a broad spectrum of stories to be told. Jordan's Waterhammer is a story that I expected to see more often in the anthology, but stories such as Amaryllis, The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away (Cory Doctorow) and the funny Civilization by Vylar Kaftan (a choose your own adventure style story) shows a diversity in the story types, but also the morals and themes behind the stories. While Brave New Worlds is scary, it goes out of its way to demonstrate the numerous ways in which fascism can manifest itself in society, in any location.

One of my favorite stories here was Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, which I first read in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. Of all the dystopian stories that I can think of, the story and the film both demonstrate the core themes for any type of dystopian story: which is the greater evil, protecting the people from themselves, or allowing them to come to greater harm?

One particularly striking story that helped define the anthology was Tobias Buckell's story, Resistance, on an asteroid colony that adopted techno-democracy, where everybody can vote on every decision. When the time required to vote becomes to much, their voting habits are taken over by a computer, which in turn creates a leader for them, based on their desires. The story demonstrated to me that in all cases, governance is the product of we the people. Society can certainly back the wrong people, as history has seen from time to time, with figures such as Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, but rather than a universal evil, supporters remain, for whatever reason: fear, threads, naïveté or blind obedience. Despite the uproar online over the TSA screening procedures enacted around the holiday period, a majority of Americans supported them.

Brave New Worlds isn't a book that's appealing because I see some imminent threat of a governmental implosion or change (although some might view it that way), it is appealing because it recognizes and points out that fascism is a continual threat to society from a particular political philosophy of a strong state, while the opposite philosophy spells danger in much the same way - presumably what Wastelands will tell a reader. The threat is present within us all, through our overreactions and our indifference to the world around us, and for that, I think Brave New Worlds presents us with a stunning cautionary group of stories that shows the limits of what people will tolerate. As it stands, it remains an exceedingly relevant and poignant book that should be an essential addition to any speculative fiction fan's personal library.

Books To Read in 2011

With the new year upon us, I've wrapped up my list of what I've read all of last year, and taken the books that I've got sitting on a shelf waiting to read for the next 365 days. I've got no illusions that I'll get through this entire list in one year - there's certainly books that I had planned to read in 2010 that I never got around to, but it's a starting point, to be sure.

The Dervish House, Ian McDonald I'm currently working my way through The Dervish House, a near future tale set in Turkey. It's a dense, fascinating read, one that I'm trying to take my time with before finishing.

Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear A man wakes up cold and alone on board a space ship, completely disoriented. I've wanted to get this book for a couple of weeks now, and it looks like a fun story, and I hope that it turns out better than Pandorum did.

The Habitation of the Blessed, Catherynne M. Valente I thought this book was due to come out this year, but happily, I picked it up over the weekend. It's a strange book thus far, a fictional take on a myth, and its rich story and prose is intriguing.

Grey, Yarn, Jon Armstrong Yarn has caught my eye over the past couple of days from its gorgeous cover, and while reading up on it, I found that Grey, Armstrong's first book, is available for free as an online read from Nightshade books. I can't wait to read both.

At the Queen's Command, Michael A. Stackpole My last encounter with Michael Stackpole's books was his 'When Dragons Rage' cycle was published a couple of years ago. This alternate history take on colonialism looks like a fun romp.

Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal Kowal's first novel has been described as a sort of Victorian story, with fantastic elements, and so far, I've liked what little I've read of it. It's on the sidelines for the moment, but I look forward to picking it up again.

The Unincorporated Man, Dani and Eytan Kollin I know very little about this book - I've heard little buzz, seen no reviews or talk about this book or its follow-up, but it looks like a neat read, and it'll be refreshing to go into a book with little context or bearings.

Spook Country and Zero History, William Gibson I read the first book in this loose trilogy, Pattern Recognition, earlier in 2010, and really enjoyed it. I've since picked up the two follow-up novels, and I'd like to get around to them at some point in the year.

The Handmaiden's Tale, Margaret Atwood Margaret Atwood did a number on fanboys with her definition of science fiction a while back, which provides a good lesson in genre classification. Clearly, her books are speculative fiction, and according to a bunch of people, they're really, really good.

Masked, Lou Anders I started this last year, and never got around to finishing it. I'll have to pick away at the stories over the year.

Nights of Villijumar, Mark Charan Newton Another book that I started last year, but haven't finished, Newton's book is a good one thus far, but it's been slow going, and I had to put it aside to meet a couple of deadlines.

Blackout, Connie Willis Time-traveling historians. This book looks awesome to the military history masters recipients with a geek background crowd.

Machinery of Light, David J. Williams David J. Williams has finished out his intense Autumn Rain trilogy with Machinery of Light, and I'll be interested to see where he goes next with it. The first two were an experience, that's for sure.

Kraken, China Mieville I loved The City and The City when I read it last year, and Kraken, ironically, was a book that I was thinking of getting to first. No matter, this year will be the year. Hopefully, I'll get it done before Embassytown comes out later this year.

Undoubtedly, this is an ambitious list of 16 books, in addition to the growing list of books that are coming out this year that I'd like to get to. If anything, it speaks to a goal to read more. Hopefully, I'll be able to top my reading list of 43 books for 2010.

2010 Reading List

This was a great year for reading. A lot of excellent fiction was released, and I felt like I got a lot of good out of my year from the books that I picked up. Here's what I read.

1- A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, Neil Sheehan (1-14) This was a fantastic history on the Cold War, one that I wish I'd come across while I was working on my project. I've revisited it a couple of times since the start of the year for other projects.

2 - The Forever War, Joe Halderman (1-28) This was a book that had come highly recommended for years, and I really enjoyed how it was more about people than guns and brawn.

3 - The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel (2-8) During the Second World War, a team of specialists were dispatched around Europe to save art from the effects of war, the focus of this book. It's a little uneven, but tells an astonishing story.

4 - We, John Dickinson (2-19) This was a crappy book. Amateurish and poorly written.

5 - Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2-24) I watched the movie around the same time, and I've long like Gaiman's works. This was an excellent YA novel.

6 - Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, John Scalzi (3-4) Scalzi's Whatever blog is always an entertaining read, and this collection takes some of the better entries into a book of short essays. Thought-provoking, interesting and well worth reading.

7 - Shadowline, Glenn Cook (3-6) With all of my complaints about military science fiction not being all that accurate or conceived of, Shadowline is one of the few books that have made me eat my words - there's some well conceived ideas here, and this reprint from Night Shade Books was a fun read.

8 - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jeminsin (3-19) N.K. Jemisin's first novel came with a lot of buzz, and I really enjoyed reading it from start to finish. It's a very different blend of fantasy than I've ever read.

9 - Spellwright, Blake Charlton (3-29) Spellwright was probably one of my favorite reads of the year - it was fast, entertaining and thoughtful - a good fantasy debut, and I'm already eager for the sequel.

10 - The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee (4-21). Karin Lowachee's Warchild was a favorite book from my high school years, and I was delighted to see her back after a long absence. This steampunk novel is an unconventional one, and a good example for the rest of the genre to follow.

11 - The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams (5-17) David J. Williams contacted me after I wrote an article on military science fiction, and I went through his first book with vigor - it's a fast-paced, interesting take on military SF and a bit of Cyberpunk.

12 - Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu (5-28) Charles Yu distinguished himself as a talented writer with his short fiction, and his recently released collection shows off some great stories.

13 - Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi (6-1) Bacigalupi goes to Young Adult fiction with Ship Breaker, an excellent read set in a post-oil world. He gets a lot of things right with this: the surroundings and trappings of the world aren't always important, but the characters and their struggles are timeless.

14 - Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (6-8) This much-hyped book was one that I avoided for a while, but I blew through it after I picked it up. It's a fun, exciting read in the quintessential steampunk world that Priest has put together. I love this alternate Seattle.

15 - To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck (7-15) Steinbeck's book is a dense one that took me a while to read through while I was reading several books at one. It's an interesting take on biblical themes and on faith itself.

16 - American Gods, Neil Gaiman (7-25) This was a book that was a pick for the 1b1t movement on twitter (something I hope returns), and I was happy for the excuse to re-read this fantastic novel. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and this time around, it was fantastic to have that reaffirmed.

17 - The Burning Skies, David J Williams (7-25) The followup to the Mirrored Heavens, this book took me a while to get through because it was dense and intense. A decent read, but it proved to be a bit of a chore to get through.

18 - How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (7-30) This was probably one of the best science fiction books that I've read in a long time. It's brilliant, well written, interesting and part of the story itself. It's an outstanding take on time travel as well.

19 - River Of Gods, Ian McDonald (9-2) I've long heard of Ian McDonald, but I hadn't picked up any of his stories before now. His take on a future India is a fantastic one, and can't wait for more of his stories. River of Gods broke the mold when it comes to western science fiction: the future will be for everyone.

20 - Clementine, Cherie Priest (9-3) This short novella was a bit too compact for the story that it contained, but it demonstrated that The Clockwork Century is something that can easily extend beyond Boneshaker.

21 - Pattern Recognition (9-11) William Gibson's book from a couple of years ago, taking science fiction to the present day in this thriller. It's a fun read, and I've already got the sequels waiting for me.

22 - New Model Army, Adam Roberts (9-22) This military science fiction book had an interesting premise: what happens when crowdsourcing and wikiculture comes to warfare. The book is a little blunt at points, but it's more thought provoking than I thought it would be.

23 - Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman (9-26) An excellent anthology of short stories from all over the speculative fiction genre. There's some real gems in there.

24 - Andvari's Ring, Arthur Peterson (9-26) A translation of norse epic poetry from the early 1900s, this book looks and feels like a book should, and is one of those bookstore discoveries that I love. This was a fun book that has roots for a number of other stories in it.

25 - The City and The City, China Miéville (9-30) One of my absolute favorite stories of the year came with this book, my first introduction to Mieville. This murder mystery set against a fantastic background has some great implications that go with the story.

26 - Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigaulupi (10-22) A paperback version of Bacigalupi's stories was released towards the end of the year, and I have to say, it's one of the more disturbing reads of the year, but also one of the most excellent.

27 - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (10-31) I did a little reading on Washington Irving and found an e-book of this while I was going through a bit of a fascination on the gothic / horror genre. This book does it well. Hopefully, I'll be able to do a bit more research on the author and his fiction this year.

28 - The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman (11-8) The television show was an interesting one, and I finally was able to catch up on the comic that started it. They're very close to start, but that changes after a couple of episodes. Some of the characters were spot on.

29 - Baltimore, or,The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola. (11-8) This was a fun read: Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden both have some great storytelling abilities when it comes to horror fiction, and their take on vampires is an excellent one.

30 - Dreadnought, Cherie Priest (11-10) Cherie Priest had a really good thing with Boneshaker, but Dreadnought was a bit of a disappointment. It didn't have the same flair or feeling that the first book did, but it did do some things that I'd wanted to see in Boneshaker. It's an interesting series, and I'll be interested to see what happens next.

31 - Lost States, Michael Trinklein (11-13) This was a fun book that I came across in a local store on states that didn't make it. It's a fun, quick read with a number of fun stories.

32 - The Jedi Path, Daniel Wallace (11-14) While I thought this book wasn't worth the $100 for all the frills and packaging, this is a really cool read for Star Wars fans, going into some of the history and methods of the Jedi Order.

33 - Horns, Joe Hill (11-22) This was the other absolutely fantastic book that I read this year (reading it as an ebook and then from the regular book) from localish author Joe Hill. The story of a man who sprouts horns and a small, emotional story about his life. It's an astonishing read, and one that will hopefully be up for a couple of awards.

34 - Doom Came to Gotham, Mike Mignola (11-24) This was a fun, alternate take on the Batman stories in a steampunk world. Batman + Mignola's art = awesome.

35 - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling (11-28) 36 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (11-29) 37 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (12-1) 38 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (12-3) 39 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (12-12) 40 - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (12-15) 41 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, J.K. Rowling (12-18) I'm not going to talk about each Potter novel in turn, but as a single, continuous story, Rowling has put together a hell of a story here. Outstanding characters and storylines, and the works as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts.

42 - The Magicians, Lev Grossman (12-27)

The logical book to read after the Harry Potter series was Lev Grossman's novel that can be described as an anti-Harry Potter. It's a fun novel the second time through, and good preparation for his followup this year.

43 - Brave New Worlds, John Joseph Adams (12-31)

The review for this book is coming shortly, but I have to say, it's one of the best anthologies that I've ever read.

On to 2011!

2011 Books

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. CoreyAs 2010 closes out, there's the inevitable looking forward to the new year. There's already a small, but growing list of books that are coming out that has been percolating in the back of my head. Some of these are authors that I've never read before, some are ones from familiar people, but all looked interesting to me. Here's what I've got thus far:

Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear

This is actually a 2010 release, but by the time that I buy it, it'll be well into the new year. A man awakes on a far out spacecraft from hibernation and takes stock of his surroundings. It looks like a fast-based, stripped down sort of novel. Hopefully, it'll be better than Pandorum.

The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John Volume 1, Catherynne M. Valente

I'm not usually moved by covers (There are some exceptions, like The Windup Girl), but this one looks interesting, and the blurb hasn't deterred me at all:

This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit.

Spellbound, Blake Charlton

Spellwright, by Blake Charlton, was a fun read that I came across earlier this year, and from the early (and now cut section) look that I had earlier, this looked very interesting, and a cool continuation of the world that he's set up. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Leviathan Wakes, James A. Corey

Another one where the cover grabbed me, this start to a series looks to interstellar space, colonies, and ancient secrets lost in the solar system. Looks like it could be a promising romp in science fiction. Blurb:

Humanity has colonized the planets – interstellar travel is still beyond our reach, but the solar system has become a dense network of colonies. But there are tensions – the mineral-rich outer planets resent their dependence on Earth and Mars and the political and military clout they wield over the Belt and beyond.Now, when Captain Jim Holden’s ice miner stumbles across a derelict, abandoned ship, he uncovers a secret that threatens to throw the entire system into war. Attacked by a stealth ship belonging to the Mars fleet, Holden must find a way to uncover the motives behind the attack, stop a war, and find the truth behind a vast conspiracy that threatens the entire human race.

Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi

John Scalzi's an author that I've followed quite a bit over the past year, and while I haven't read his followup books to 'Old Man's War' (have them, haven't gotten to them yet), Fuzzy Nation is probably going to jump to the front of the list. It's a reboot of a hugo-award winning novel, Little Fuzzy, something he doesn't think has happened before. It'll be interesting to see what happens with that, and there's no doubt in my mind that Scalzi can put together a fun tale.

Embassytown, China Mieville

The City and The City is one of my favorite books that I read over the past year, and as he turns to science fiction and aliens, I'm confident that he'll be putting a unique twist and look on the genre. In the meantime, I've got Kracken to read.

Bright’s Passage, Josh Ritter

I actually don't know anything about what this book will be about. But, it's by Josh Ritter, one of the best singer-songwriters out there, and if this is anything like his music, it's going to be a very good read indeed.

The Magician's King, Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman blew me away with The Magicians last year, and this followup to the book has me really intrigued. Where the first one could be described as the anti-Harry Potter, I have a hard time seeing how this one could play out. The ending moved to a bit more of a traditional fantasy novel, and if he can craft something in the same vein, that should be interesting indeed.

Unknown, Austin Grossman

Brother of Lev Grossman, Austin is known for his fantastic novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. Nothing much has come from the author since that was published a couple of years ago, but reportedly, he'll have something coming out. I'll be checking it out as soon as I get more information on it! Of course, all of these books could be horrible. They could be brilliant. Time will tell, but I can't wait to find out. Hype in any form is a dangerous thing for a book: it can raise expectations beyond what is reasonable, or it won't be enough for a brilliant book to get off the ground. Things like cover art, while cool, aren't the literature world equivilent of trailers, although they're hyped up to be, and while I do love great cover art, it doesn't always pay off by translating into a good book. Most of the authors on this list are ones that I've known and read before, although there's a couple of newcomers. Fortunately, this is a small risk to take. I can buy a book based on the cover and advance reviews, and hope for the best. In some cases, it's paid off. In others? I have a book that sits on my shelf, looking nice. Here's to hoping that 2011 will be as good of a year as this year was.

Customers Aren't Idiots

While driving home over the Thanksgiving weekend, Megan and I talked about our respective retail experiences. I had worked at Waldenbooks/Borders for several years, while she had worked at Borders, Fashion Bug and Weis, a grocery store in the Pennsylvania area. It's not a stretch to say that we're both fairly disillusioned with how things worked in each of the stores, but I don't believe that the retail experience has to be bad for either the customer, or the people working there. There are certainly plenty of examples of places that are fairly decent to work for, and there were points in both of our stores where we felt that we enjoyed what we did.

The crux of the problem seems to lie in a band between the upper management to direct the strategic concerns for whatever company you're working with, and the people on the ground level: the middle manager level seems to be the biggest issue, because it allows for the priorities, directions and strategy from the upper echelons to be interpreted, translated and carried out, and in each of our cases, this was where things went very wrong.

We both had several stories of how our individual stores had fairly competent people working in them: employees and sales people who genuinely wanted to sell the products that we were selling, with a number of additional requirements handed down from up on high. In my own experience, booksellers had the directions to not only greet a customer when they entered the door, but to follow them around the store to be available. If a person asked for a book, we were to lead them to the book, place it in their hands, and do the same for any number of recommended titles. At the register, there was the usual script of asking if the customer had a loyalty card (Rewards Card, sorry), and if they were interested in any of the numerous 'key items' that were located near the register.

If I was a customer walking into the store for the first time, I'd never return.

Stores that sell non-essential items like books, films, clothing and other related things generally mean that the customer isn't pressured to buy something - they're there voluntarily, rather than by necessity, and as such, the customer should be treated as someone other than a source of income for the company: stores such as Borders, F.Y.E., Fashion Bug and numerous others have the wrong approach by forcing items into the hands of customers. The difference that I can see here is in how the customer is viewed by the respective companies: rather than a sales focus, the people on the ground, in the stores should adopt a better customer service model that would allow them to accomplish the same goal without harassing the customers.

I cannot begin to count how many people refused, and have gotten annoyed, or even angry at me for asking if they had the Rewards Card. Several years ago, Borders began their rewards card system, which allowed someone with a card to accrue a certain percentage of their purchases for the holidays and for every hundred dollars, they'd earn $5 back. It's a good system, and I can see the logic behind it: people who use a card will have an incentive to return.

The problem here comes with the requirements and quotas laid down by the company: with a finite pool of people to receive the card, the percentages of new signups will come down over a set period of time. The opposite reaction occurred: quotas went up, and several of my friends were fired as a result, for either signing up blank cards, using the same one over again, to keep up with the demand. Looking back, it's a problem that existed within the company, without taking into consideration the human element: the program turned from something that enticed customers (and continued to do so for the people who did sign up) but also estranged those who weren't interested in the card from day one. The card and the policy behind it failed to adapt to the changes in the environment: as more people signed up, better, more realistic expectations should have been set, and further goals for retention should have been examined.

The problem here, and with the instructions to place books in people's hands, seem to have come from a company that looked only at the numbers, rather than the people who were coming into the store. While I suspect that such practices worked; pointing out books to customers will gain a couple of sales, and should be continued, this only further reinforced the idea that more aggressive policies will equal a resulting sales figure. That comes across to me as being extremely shortsighted: costumers, fatigued with pressure from an aggressive sales front, will go elsewhere, so that they're not bothered or pressured into getting things that they don't want. From where I stood in the company, it seemed as though the management on the district level used a heavy hand when it came to selling their products: push as much out through the door, rather than retaining a population of customers that would return to the store because of the selection of products, the attitude of the sales staff and someone who was satisfied out the door.

As an employee there, I had very little customer service training: no poorly acted videos, program, probationary period, with little idea of the goals and ins and outs of the company as it stood. Quality customer service comes with the people at the front, and the goals that were established for them. Essentially, we were the people handing over the books to the people who wanted them, with little interest in anything else.

There are other companies out there that have done things far differently: Apple, AT&T, Zappos and Netflix all come to mind, as their models are more oriented towards customer satisfaction, rather than sales. Through the job that I currently have, I've attended several webinars and read up on the subject, and it's clear that any business - especially in an environment where consumers are more discriminating with their money. These companies, either in their stores, or over the phone (AT&T is horrid over the phone) are generally very good with their front of the line sales - this breaks down a bit depending on the issue, but for the most part, these places are ones that I've had fairly pleasant dealings with.

Such interactions, with people, rather than an anonymous sales figure or customer service representative are essential. People react positively within their own networks, and generally trust sales and information received from people who they know personally: this is one of the biggest strengths of using social media (and utilizing it well), because people will listen to their friends, and will talk about issues. The same logic can be applied in stores, with a customer sales person that works to make the customer happy, rather than simply filling the company's bottom line. Essentially, information and innovation needs to move from the sales floor up, with a staff that has the latitude to work as needed, rather than from top down requirements. Store and company policy should be informed by the experiences that the employees see.

One of the reasons, I suspect, that the larger book stores are facing hard times is because they haven't needed to understand this dynamic when it comes to their customers, because of their size, and as such, haven't fostered a loyal following. People don't tend to stick with the same stores out of loyalty: prices will help, but the experiences that a person has at any given store will help more. If they're not satisfied, they'll move to a competitor. As such, companies need to be able to adapt to the changes in the market place, and the changes in customer requirements. I suspect that sites such as Amazon.com have raised these expectations somewhat: having pretty much every item ever produced available, not to mention remembering what you purchased and searched for last time. This isn't practical in a brick and mortar store, when it comes to stock, but what stores should be doing is focusing on creating a loyal base of customers, one that caters more to what they are looking for, with the intent on bringing them the best experience possible, and going about that in an intelligent fashion. The bottom line comes down to understanding the customer: they're not idiots.

Understanding good customer service is something that will be essential in the future: companies that can't adapt will simply fade away, while others, with more flexibility, will earn the money that the customers are willing to part with. At the end of the day, Megan and my experiences were similar: the front-line sales staff weren’t able to contribute or implement changes that were needed on our level, changes that could have contributed and translated to a better customer experience. It’s no wonder that some of these places aren’t able to compete.

Horns, by Joe Hill

A man wakes up to discover that he's sprouted horns on his head overnight. Joe Hill's latest book, Horns, starts off with a simple premise, one that unfolds into a wonderfully complicated and minimal story of murder, revenge and the inherent darkness that exists within people. At the same time, Hill brings out a deeply philosophical and intriguing look at faith and Christian allegory.

As Ig Parrish finds that people are influenced by the new additions to his head, the circumstances of personal tragedy (his girlfriend's rape and murder, which he was blamed, but cleared of) begin to resurface as people begin to tell him their deepest inhibitions and secrets. As the story progresses, we are taken deep into the lives of each character, which fully explains and supports the events that send the story moving in the first place. The end result is a literary masterpiece that brings out a rich blend of horror and supernatural with a cast of fantastic and utterly believable characters. Every element, every mention of something comes to some level of significance to the story as a whole, and Hill brings out rock and soul music, personalities, and other numerous references to help support the story. This is a rare thing that I've seen, and possibly one of the best examples that I've come across where this is enacted and works: everything in the story supports the main premise and story as a whole.

Horns is wonderfully complex, yet minimal at the same time. The story jumps around from character to character and from the present to various points in the past, with a dedicated, focused purpose. Rather than wandering off to put together a story of epic proportions (and a story where a man grows horns on his head certainly calls for this), Hill burrows down and tells an intensely personal story, with a small collection of characters who's stories intertwine around a central tragedy. This is storytelling at its best, where there are no arbitrary actions, but carefully crafted story. It's a notable achievement, and I hope that Hill receives due recognition for this: it doesn't happen all that often. The result is a superior, notable book.

This novel is one that left me disturbed on many levels. Rather than the horror being presented as Ig turns into a supernatural being, of sorts, the horror comes as Ig sees what people are capable of as they confess to him the darker thoughts that they've been harboring. At the same time, the events that put much of the plot into motion are horrible, terrible things, and in the way that the book is structured, the reader is conscious of what is likely coming, with a growing amount of horror. This is terror on a level that far transcends a monster or man in a mask: this is the horror of the inevitability of something coming down the line, with no way to alter its course.

Furthermore, there is a residual bit of horror in the ways that people interact with their faith. Hill puts together an interesting look at the relationship between God, Lucifer and People, with some interesting parallels and conclusions sure to piss off any devotee of Christianity, but not coming out as a lecture on philosophy: this is storytelling at its finest, and a story that is possibly one of the more important to examine in a critical fashion.

Horns is a stunning read, for the story, the characters and the allegory, which turns this into a novel holds up with some of the best books that I’ve picked up this year: easily comparable in quality to China Miéville’s ‘ The City and The City’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’.

Dreadnought, Cherie Priest

It’s hard to mention the term Steampunk without also mentioning Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, an alternate history of the United States, featuring all of the bells and whistles that comes with the territory. The first novel, Boneshaker, was well received, as was the short novella, Clementine, set shortly after the events of the first book, while the latest entry in the series (there are two more planned), Dreadnought, picks up the story across the country and helps to flesh out Priest’s strange alternate world. An interesting follow-up to Boneshaker, Dreadnought never quite reaches the same heights that its predecessor reached, nor does it quite feel as unique. As such, Priest brings out new elements to the Civil War only hinted at in the previous books, and tells a fun story, one that is sure to be popular with the steampunk crowd.

Following Mercy Lynch, a nurse stationed in a confederate war hospital in Virginia, Dreadnought is set in the heart of the lengthened American Civil War. Lynch is summoned away by her father, Jeremiah Swakhammer, (careful readers will remember the name from Boneshaker). What happens next is a journey for Lynch that she could never have expected. An alternate title for this book could easily have been Airships, Barges and Locomotives, for her journey across the country covers not only ground, but the staples of the steampunk movement. Along the way, a number of storylines begin to form and collide as the war effort goes forward. A Texas Ranger is on the hunt for a missing Mexican army, while a Union scientist harbors a hidden and deadly cargo onboard the Dreadnought, a Union train bound for the west on a mysterious mission. As Lynch finds herself at the center of the conflict, we’re treated to a spectacle of action and movement as she makes her way across the continent to her dying father.

At points, Dreadnought is very good, particularly once things get moving west, when the titular Dreadnought becomes the main setting and as story elements begin to collide. Each storyline has their own main elements running forward and Priest has constructed a fascinating tale of the war without being set in the war, further telling the story of two sides that fail to quit fighting.

At the same time, however, Dreadnought proved to be a frustrating read as exposition took over in the beginning and end, and as the story seemed to merely drift along the rail road tracks to each major scene, with a host of forgettable characters to fill in the blanks. Where Boneshaker left me unable to put the book down, Dreadnought seems to be the sophomore slump (being the second full novel in the series, not the author’s second novel or story within The Clockwork Century) in the series.

Part of this might stem from the very nature of the book, spread out over a vast continent, with almost too much to look at: there’s a short, tantalizing section on the actions of the Civil War, then onto the fragmented nature of the country, then the native Americans, mad scientists, Texas Rangers and zombies. As a result, the main action takes its time to gather momentum. But, when it does, the book (forgive me) picks up steam and becomes an engrossing read that lives up to the best elements of its predecessors before ending quietly with a quick link to Boneshaker that serves well as an epilogue.

Steampunk has hit some major counter arguments lately from a couple of authors, making some pointed arguments that The Clockwork Century, nor Dreadnought are able to adequately answer. The main point that kept running through my mind during all of the stories was how the Civil War would be approached, and after reading through Dreadnought, it seems that there’s a certain level of the Southern inevitable cause that seems to have survived since the 1870s when it first originated: the South was destined to lose, but it fought the better fight. Thrust into the heat of the Civil War, the book goes in this direction, and as a historian, it’s a little frustrating to see such a revisionist vision come out. (This isn’t to say that Mrs. Priest is a diehard revisionist: just that her book seems to go in that direction)

Whatever the historical feelings are when it comes to this story, Charles Stross brings up a very good point with his own rant about Steampunk: namely that the genre seems far too rosy and nostalgic for the staples of Steampunk: the corsets, the goggles, brass and strange trappings that characterize the movement. Here, the south seems to have largely given up an element of bloody racism, lone women are free to run around the country largely without incident, and there’s really no feeling of the absolute brutality and dark nature that characterized this era of history. While Stross’s arguments miss elements of how history played out in the United States, there are still some relevant points. I would rather have this rather fantastic, romanticized past rather than the actual one, but when compared to our true past, this version feels somewhat hollow.

Keeping in mind that this is an element of historical fiction, aimed towards entertainment, these arguments are somewhat petty in and of themselves: there is no expectation of historical accuracy, especially when there is talk of a zombie army running around Utah, eating the Mormons who have settled there, but it feels like there is an incredible opportunity missed by not setting a story that looks to something besides a romantic version of the past. The reasons for not doing so are pretty clear: when marketing a product that you want to sell, you don’t really want to highlight all of the nasty or dirty elements, much as Apple doesn’t want to highlight the group of Foxxconn workers who committed suicide while building the ever popular iProducts that have become so common play. However, by ignoring these elements, Priest’s vision of steampunk is far more polished and perfect, which calls attention to itself.  But, that’s okay.

Steampunk is a genre that I’ve sought to avoid as much as possible, but Priest’s alternative vision in Dreadnought, no matter how polished, is a fun and exciting story that stands up well within her series, and it gives me no small amount of hope that even with a flood of material, there are still some authors who strive to tell a good story, rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck off of an audience who’s looking the right way at the right time. Dreadnought is a good book – not a great one – that holds no pretense as to what it is supposed to be, and doesn’t overstep its bounds. For that reason alone, it’s worth picking up and reading. Steampunk itself might be a flawed creation, but so long as Priest stands at the front, I have an amount of faith that there will still be some good stories to be told within it.

Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire

As the publishing industry has jumped wholeheartedly into the emotional Vampire trend that's seen the release of the Twilight novels, it's nice to come across a book that was published during this that really brings the horror back to the style of story. Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola is an engrossing read that both deals with vampires, and brings in a proper horror feeling to the story.

This unconventional novel was first recommended to me a couple of years ago, where I was drawn to the absolutely fascinating cover, drawn up by comic book artist and author Mike Mignola. Mignola, the creator of the Hellboy and BPRD comic series, is a favorite of mine, not only for his excellent artwork, but for his strange, gothic stories that pull me in. When I came across the book at a convention last month, I immediately picked up the book, and had it signed, as author Christopher Golden was one of the attendees.

Lord Baltimore, a soldier in the English military during the first World War, leads a night attack against German soldiers, when his entire squad is killed when they are spotted. Wounded, he sees something frightening: creatures coming out of the dark to feed on the men under his command. He attacked one of the giant bats, striking it in the face with his bayonet, scarring it. He is attacked in turn, and loses his leg as a result.

Those actions push the story into action, and the rest of the book is preoccupied with not Baltimore’s story, but of three friends of his: Doctor Lemuel Rose, the doctor who treated Baltimore’s leg after the attack (and ended up amputating it), Thomas Childress , a childhood friend of Baltimore’s, and Demetrius Aischros, who brought Baltimore home from the battlefield. Each man was summoned by Baltimore, and as they await his presence, it unfolds that each of them has had an encounter with the supernatural, and that they would help him in his mission.

Following Baltimore’s attack, Red King (the leading vampire who was wounded in the face) unleashes a plague against Europe in retaliation for his disfigurement. People passed away across the continent, and turned into vampires themselves, grinding the war to a halt as the death toll climbs. As Baltimore returns home, the King exacts his own revenge on his attacker by killing his family, then his wife, in an effort to break the man. The opposite happens, and Baltimore goes on a quest to kill the Red King. As the stories are told, they blend together towards a finish that was entirely unexpected, but rewarding.

Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire is s a good example of where a genre has been changed from largely traditional details, yet is able to stand on its own. Where books such as Stephanie Myer’s Twilight have been criticized because of the liberties that have been taken with the books, Baltimore was able to capture the horror of such individuals and come out as a work who’s antagonist doesn’t feel shortchanged. Having not read Twilight yet, I can’t accurately compare the changes to some of the more rooted versions of the canon, but I can say that Baltimore reaffirms my belief that canon isn’t always paramount, and that modern stories that take on vampires shouldn’t be rooted as firmly to Bram Stoker’s Dracula as we’d like.

Baltimore sheds away the Victorian gothic styling that comes with the territory and advances towards World War I. With its trench warfare, rapid advances in weapons and seemingly pointless nature to the attacks, the battlefields in France and Germany are the perfect setting for a horror novel, and under Golden and Mignola’s care, a time of industrial realism is blended together with a sort of surreal supernatural amongst each of the characters, in Italy, England and South America. Moreover, vampirism here seemed to be carried on by disease – a horrifying method of death in and of itself – rather than the bites and lives in coffins. These vampires are pretty scary in their own right – taking over towns, coming out at night and generally not good people to be around, especially as they feed and decimate the population of Europe.

In the end, the book serves as an interesting counterpart to the First World War. By the end, it becomes increasingly clear that both sides have become larger than their individual selves: they represent a larger picture, and with the war as a background, they have become two larger forces that collide endlessly, tirelessly and each unable to yield to the other. Baltimore is a fascinating read, one that pulls in the strange worlds that Mike Mignola puts together, (along with his art on every page) and the excellent storytelling of Christopher Golden.  The story shows that the vampire craze can be adapted into its own different ways, but that it retains some of the core facets: there are some things that are more horrifying than death.

A Stranger's Gift

I have one particular addiction: books. There's very little that I don't like about them, from an orderly line of them occupying a shelf, the heft and weight, to their universal format that allows them to be accessed by everyone. (That sounds like a dig against eBooks, but it's not). Inevitably, when I am drawn to a bookstore, I end up with a couple volumes that caught my eye under my arm as I leave the store. This happen earlier today after a late lunch when Megan and I wandered back home. A local store, The Book Garden, is holding a sale for their used books, buy one, get another free. I've picked through the store pretty well, and I'm always happy to see that they've got a replenished collection every time that I go in. This particular trip, I found that they had a pair of Harry Potter novels, The Sorcerer's Stone and The Deathly Hollows, neither of which I had, and both in hardcover. I've bee working to get all of the book for my own collection (in hardcover), and used bookstores usually have a couple of them, I picked up the pair, intending on adding them to my collection (with just a couple of others (Books 4 and 6) left to pick up after that before I had the entire set.

The books bagged, We walked home along Barre St, where we came across a trio of children playing on the sidewalk. The three of them were bundled up against the cold, but looked like they were having fun. They spread out across the sidewalk and a demanded a password to cross, giggling. Megan guessed Cat (or Kat, they said it began with K) and I guessed people for mine, and they allowed us to pass. One little girl said that she could read the sign on the side of the truck parked across the road, and read it for me.

Impulsively, I asked them if they liked to read. Her dark face lit up with a wide grin and nodded. I pulled one of the books out of my bag, The Sorcerer's Stone and handed it to them, asking if they wanted it. They took it out of my hand and look even more excited, and ran inside. I overheard the brother tell his mother that a 'nice man gave us Harry Potter!' as we walked by their apartment's door. I hope that the mother's reaction wasn't that her children had just been given a book by a stranger, and throw it away or forbid them to read it, but accept it in the spirit that it was given: impulsively, with the intention that they will read a fun children's story, one that I greatly enjoyed as a youngster. Their excitement was tangible, and he way that their faces lit up gives me some hope that the book will be enjoyed (maybe in a couple of years, or hours).

Books, I think, should be given out more freely, and their use encouraged in the instances when that's not possible. It's certainly something that I'd like to do more, and I wonder if i should start picking up books that would appeal to children and find some way to distribute them to those in need. Reading is important, essential, and some of the stories that I've heard from family members and significant others about the abilities of children in the school systems, I'm worried about some of them. Hopefully, I've inspired a couple of kids that reading can be, well, magical, interesting, and exciting.

China Miéville’s Tale of Two Cities: The City and The City

The City and The City is the first and only book that I've picked up that was authored by China Miéville, and it's easily one of the best books that I've read all year. The story, from all accounts, is something that stands apart from Miéville's other works as a minimal, stripped down affair. This book was well deserving of the latest round of Hugo Awards, tying with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl for the best novel prize.

The City and The City opens with the murder of a woman, which Inspector Tyador Borlú is tasked with investigating. What sets this murder apart is its location in the city state of Besźel. Here, two worlds intersect with one another, two conjoined cities that have long been separated, occupying the same place. The two cities set up a storyline that is highly relevant, as Borlú digs deeper into the crimes that have been committed in order to find the killer, uncovering a vast conspiracy that goes to the very heart of the split of the two cities, and the shadow organization, Breach, that enforces the boundary between the two locations.

The complicated element of The City and The City was this split between the two worlds, and what Miéville has done is nothing short of spectacular: create a profound world, one that touches on some of the most relevant topics in today's society. The book also does what all good speculative fiction stories should do: take a speculative element, and use that to set a story. Science Fiction / Fantasy readers will find that this book utilizes a single speculative element: the split between worlds. A common enough story element, but there's no strange devices, mad science or magic gone bad: visitors from one side to another must take their passport with them, and must learn to 'Unsee' the other side, or they will run up against the Breach, a shadowy organization that steps in when accidental, and intentional breaches occur.

With the backdrop of speculation, Miéville sets his story in motion, and the pursuit of the woman's killer. As Borlú digs deeper into the woman's background, he discovers that her area of study goes to the heart of the separation between the cities, a radical who enflamed nationalists and unificationists on both sides (political groups who sought to unite the two cities) and uncovers a spectacular conspiracy that holds ramifications for both cities.

An underlying strength to this story comes in the world building that Miéville puts together. The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma recall the nature of places such as Palestine and Israel, East and West Berlins, and Yugoslavia: distinct nations, ethnic groups and political organizations that share the same territory, borders and physical space, but the people's hearts are elsewhere. Here, the separation is a reinforced one, where these societies have been split apart physically. Each city maintains its own culture, architecture, clothing, and languages, and between the two, Ul Qoma represents a modern world, with major foreign investors and trade, while groups in Besźel seek to change their surroundings.

This is where the book is at its strongest: this book is not one that retells the story of real life counterparts, but looks to them for inspiration, while a unique story is crafted around the inspiration that sets the world into motion. Miéville has put together a unique story that takes the bare minimum of speculative elements, while telling a story that is relatable to the modern reader. As such, the book sheds some insights into the mentality of some of the problems of the world: this accomplishes everything that science and fantasy fiction should be doing, and as such, The City and The City succeed wildly.

Miéville's novel is one that slowly unfolds as the story progresses forward. What starts as what appears to be a fairly straight forward murder mystery (abet with strange surroundings) becomes larger as Borlú goes further and further with his case, travelling to Ul Qoma and eventually, committing an act of Breach in the course of his investigation.

The book is not without its flaws, and while the book lives up to much of what it intends to do, I found myself wishing that there was a bit more to some of the elements. Breach, an organization built to separate the two cities, doesn't fully satisfy upon its reveal to the reader, and where there was much discussion about the nature of Breach, and an alternate, third city (Orciny), which never came together as expected, and the unexpected result isn't quite as interesting.

The City and The City is a marvelous book, one that is both fast paced and immersive, a read that I found gripping, rich and easily the one of the best books that I've read all year.

Banned Books Week

Today marks the start of Banned Book Week, a campaign to bring about awareness of works of literature that have been suppressed or authors who have been persecuted for their works. According to the American Library Association, the week celebrates the importance of the First Amendment, while "drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States." Coming from a family that does a lot of reading, and from working within a couple of libraries, I detest the notion of banning a book for its content, especially in school systems, and I am continually worried when I hear of various books being banned by overprotective parents, school boards of bigoted, ignorant people who misunderstand the reasons behind education.

The ALA published a list of frequently challenged books from across the country. Looking down the list, I see a number of books that I read in high school, and on my own, that I both greatly enjoyed and/or read on my own: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (the irony of this book being banned is almost comical), Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Call of the Wild by Jack London and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I know other books, such as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series have also been burned or have been pushed to be banned, and I'm reasonably sure that numerous other science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fictions have been banned because of their content.

Education, I believe, is not strictly about the content that students are fed, but a way to understand the world around them. In subjects such as English, this is a paramount lesson to be learned, as books and stories pull specific themes and instances out for characters, and allows students to synthesize problems and see how characters are changed based on their experiences within the story. Within any story, conflict that challenges the characters should likewise challenge the readers, by looking at commonly held assumptions and continually questioning how they go about the world. This is where the greatest learning occurs for anyone.

The outrage here is that limiting the books that students can read traps them within a preset outlook on the world, where books that fall outside of the realm of political correctness, are 'indecent' or overly challenge assumptions are unable to do what they are intended to do. What bothers me even more is that a number of the locations where books are banned within the US come from traditionally right-wing regions of the country, regions where people claim to want to uphold the constitution, to ensure that freedoms aren't limited by their government, while turning around and insisting that they do the very same thing within their communities. The hypocrisy of the situation is stunning, and I can't help but wonder if our insistence on protecting our youth from things that we disagree with is hurting the country as a whole.

The argument against banning books is something that’s been out there for a long time, and there’s very little beyond my own experience and resulting conclusions that I can add to the situation. Looking over my own high school English experience (with some fantastic teachers in the humanities) I am shocked at how many of the books that I read are amongst the most banned list, and for fairly trivial reasons, such as language and content. Moreover, reading some of those books are incredibly valuable experiences for me. Some of the books, such as Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies and For Whom The Bell Tolls, were ones that imparted a number of revelations and provided specific learning experiences that I was then able to build upon. These books are not easy to replace, and students do not read these simply for pleasure: the challenge is the object here.

Nor do I believe that reasons such as language and ‘obscene’ situations hold much water in this day and age, when students have access to the wider internet, where whatever is banned is conceivably right at their fingertips, where there is no guidance or supervision. Instead, parents should take the moral reins and instruction for their children, and teach them right from wrong.

Banning books isn’t the answer, or a good thing for any sort of quality education. Actually educating, challenging and extracting a reaction from students will bring about the proper understanding from students.

Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson

After reading Ian McDonald's River of Gods recently, I was compelled to read another science fiction novel that took place around the planet, interacting with a number of other cultures. As William Gibson's latest novel, and the last of his 'Bigend' trilogy, Zero History was recently released, I picked up the first of the series, Pattern Recognition, published in 2003. I've had the book for a number of years, but had never picked it up, or even cracked it open. My first surprise, upon doing so, was to discover that the book had been signed by Mr. Gibson.

Pattern Recognition, from an author that helped define the notion (and term) cyberspace, as well as much of the cyberpunk genre, might seem as a sort of step back. The book takes place in contemporary times, in a post-9/11 setting, in England, Japan and Russia. Media consultant Cayce Pollard is hired by a company, Blue Ant, who is redesigning a logo for a Tokyo firm. Pollard, who has an adverse reaction to logos and marketing, and a curiosity with a series of videos that have surfaced on the internet, is hired by Blue Ant founder Hubertus Bigend, who wants her to find the maker of the clips, because of the potential gain that can be achieved by learning everything about them, and why they attract so much attention. This job is one that takes her across the world, from London to Tokyo to uncover a code that would help connect the videos to a firm in the United States, and to Russia as more leads come about. Her trip around the planet is one of discovery, as she moves from world to world following information.

While the book is set in contemporary times, it fits well with Gibson's notion that science fiction doesn't have to be part of the future. Instead, this book does what the best science fiction stories do: amidst the science fictional elements that surround the story, there is a central element that defines the book. In this case, this book is about networking, and the ability of technology to bring a diverse set of people together. In 2003, this stage of the internet hadn't quite happened yet: blogging was the big thing, and Facebook was still a year away, twitter three. Pollard's quest? To find what's arguably a viral video. In a large way, Gibson has recognized the rise of social media before it happened.

While the predictions of Pattern Recognition aren't quite as revolutionary as Gibson's were with Neuromancer, this book is far more relatable, relevant, and understands the heart of the internet. The story contains very few speculative elements: Pollard's allergy to advertising (in some cases) and some of the technological elements that are at this point outdated. Author Dennis Danvers noted it best in his review:

Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work.

In a large way, Gibson has demonstrated that he's very good at figuring out how people will use various technologies, and in a way, the gap between Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition (and presumably, its sequels, Spook Country and Zero History.) isn't as far apart as when it first meets the eye. Pattern Recognition illustrates a reality that is cold, separated from humanity while being connected at almost all times through the internet. Gibson makes the point that the future isn't far away, it's right now, this very moment.

Indeed, Gibson is probably one of the few science fiction authors to see his works come to life - not only in the details as to what he's written, but in how the future has been realized. It's a bit of a given point, seeing how the book has been set, but between 2003 (when I entered college) and the present day (out of school and working for several years) the world has changed immensely, not just in the speeds and the availability of communications, but in how people understand and utilize the internet. This seems to have been anticipated, and while the real world is already leaving this story behind, it's clear that there are some lessons here that can be learned: we're all connected.

As a story, the execution leaves a book that makes me feel much like Chris Kelvin from Solaris: isolated, cold, somewhat depressed, and Gibson writes Pollard’s character as a fairly empty person, someone who is socially isolated, but at the same time connected to those people whom she shares mutual interests with. Pollard’s journey across the planet in search of a revolutionary form of marketing is an interesting one across a number of countries and subcultures that could only exist in the internet age. At journey’s end in Moscow, Pollard comes to meet the maker of the clips, and an interesting story of commercial viability vs. artistic creativity is brought full circle.

While it’s not as groundbreaking, Pattern Recognition succeeds by using science fiction as a mirror, demonstrating not only that we live in a futuristic world, it’s one that we’re only now fully realizing as we live it.