Friday, December 8, 2017

The Andy Weir Algorithm


After turning the last page of Artemis, I was left wondering who -or what- Andy Weir actually is. Is he truly the smiling picture of the software engineer on the back flap who created his own sci-fi sub-genre with The Martian and taught us about growing potatoes on Mars? Or is he a piece of software himself? An elaborate computer algorithm designed to generate books after the user fills in a few required fields:

Protagonist (Male/Female): ___________

Protagonists's scientific discipline/major skill: ______________

Planet:____________

Number of scenes involving an airlock: ____

The truth is, I don't care. It doesn't make "his" formula any less enjoyable but if you are looking for something original you won't find it here. He's a bit like AC/DC; they have been recording essentially the same album for the past 43 years, but fans still line up to buy the "new" one because the lyrics might be different and, you know, they rock.

Questions of originality aside, this book is surgically designed to be a blockbuster motion picture starring Nazanin Boniadi. So if, like me, you are the kind of person who enjoys telling your friends how the book was better than the movie, reading this now will put you three to five years ahead of that obnoxious curve. You can also impress people with your newly acquired knowledge of welding metal in the vacuum of space. AC/DC fans love that kind of thing.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Boy and his Canoe


Slipping back into the multiverse of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is like sipping on a warm and soothing cup of English breakfast tea on a rainy afternoon. Readers unacquainted with Pullman's earlier work should not despair, as the events of La Belle Sauvage take place many years before Lyra starts spying on the headmaster of Jordan College in The Golden Compass. If you haven't had the pleasure of meeting Lyra yet, this is a wonderful introduction. As long as stinky baby nappies don't bother you...

This book takes us back to the fictionalized alternate universe of London where Lyra and her deamon Pantalaimon are defenseless babies under the care of nuns. Pullman does a wonderful job of focusing on rolling, pastoral storytelling, while at the same time giving the reader a sense of sweeping events moving just out of sight. We meet Malcolm Polstead, a kind, curious boy who helps out at his family Inn just down the road from the Abby where Lyra is sequestered.

In the first half of the book we find the perfect balance of the mundane and the fantastical. As events propel Malcolm to take the role of guardian to baby Lyra, an otherworldly flood transforms the rural English countryside. Throughout the latter half, the spirit of Conrad's Heart of Darkness winks at us while our heroes are swept down a river in a desperate fight for survival. It is breathless stuff, with just the right seasoning of mysticism and Pullman's signature hook that will pull the reader, wide-eyed through to the other side.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Karma Bad. Andie Macdowell Good.


Let's talk about death and reincarnation. A common trope in Buddhism used to express the never ending energy cycle of life, death and rebirth. What you get reborn as is entirely up to the karmic investments you've made. Help out at a homeless shelter? Maybe you get to be a sleek, wild stallion in your next life. Punch a grieving widow in the solar plexus on Black Friday because she grabbed the last half-priced waffle iron? Welcome to your new career as Kanye West's toe fungus.

Or maybe you are like Harry August; born in 1919 on the bathroom floor of a train station, killing your mother in the process. It's not the ideal way to start your life but you manage, thanks to the saintly kindness of your adoptive family. The good news is you were born after that nasty world war, that statistically speaking, you probably would have died in. Annnnnnd....Germany annexes Austria.

Turns out you are pretty good at fixing stuff, so you manage to avoid being on the business end of Nazi machine guns by being too valuable as an aircraft mechanic. When the war is over you go on to lead a modest life and die of natural causes just before the turn of the new millennium.

Not bad. You managed to get through World War 2 without killing anyone and you always tipped the paper boy. You're probably looking at a nice songbird or something for your next go-round....Annnnnnd.....What the hell? You're back on the bathroom floor in 1919. You're Harry August again and you remember EVERYTHING.

You're not alone. There are a whole bunch of people who hit the reset button every time they die. They even have their own club that they invite you to join. They have a rule though, and it's a pretty big one: Even though you know exactly how the next 80-odd years are going to play out, you are not allowed to interfere with major historical events. Because really bad shit can happen if you do. They found out the hard way.

After reading this book I couldn't help wondering what I would do with my life if I was granted a mulligan every time I died. I would probably be a little more Bill Murray from the movie Groundhogs Day than Harry August. Sure, you could eventually learn dozens of languages, become obscenely rich, and master the most complex disciplines in the world but how awesome would it be to drive a Chevy pickup off a cliff and learn everything about Andie Macdowell?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Feeling Bad about Laughing


At the heart of Paul Beatty's hilarious novel lies a simple thought experiment: Could you prove that racism in the United States is still alive and well by bringing back segregation?

 After the election of the first black president there was a suggestion that we had evolved into a post-racial world. A belief that all of the seeds planted by the civil rights movement had borne righteous fruit and very soon the colour of your skin and the country of your origin would be irrelevant in this great democracy of ours.

Then we woke up on the morning of November 9th, turned on the news and discovered that we were just a tad too optimistic about the state of the world.  The idea slowly dawned on us that maybe racism isn't just the hallmark of the intellectually inferior mind. Maybe it is something we are all guilty of. The elephant in the room of our collective conscious as we drive through the bad part of town.

The bad part of town in this case is an agrarian suburb of Los Angeles called Dickens, where our nameless narrator is home schooled on a diet of unconventional psychology served up by his father. Dickens itself stands in as an effective metaphor for our ill-conceived ideas of a post-racial world. When our hero makes it ground zero for the reintroduction of segregated schools, buses and drinking fountains it is not outrage that greets him, but a sense of civic pride, a sense of order and a relief from the pressure of pretending that intolerance is a thing of the past.

My feelings for this book are tangled up with my feelings about the upcoming Donald Trump presidency. I laugh because on some level it is very funny and absurd. Then I think about the very real consequences and I feel bad for laughing.