Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


Archive for the 'Reading' Category

Recommended: Summit by Harry Farthing

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

I loved this novel.

Summit is what I like to call a literary thriller — adventure, conflict, brave deeds, beautifully written, filled with philosophy and politics, and not formulaic. It’s the debut effort of Harry Farthing who, from his website, is a British businessman, world traveler, and adventurer. I listened to the audio edition, which was read by the author. He has an excellent voice and I greatly enjoyed his performance.

The summit referred to in the title is Mount Everest, highest peak on Earth. The mountain is central to the dual stories of two European mountaineers — one modern, one pre-World War II. In both settings, Farthing pays respectful attention to the Sherpa, who are well-rounded characters with stories of their own. The author is in no hurry to bring the two principle story threads together, but that’s all right, because both plot lines are fascinating and well told.

There is also a timeliness to Summit as it explores the politics and atrocities of Nazi Germany alongside the dangerous modern-day resurgence of European fascism.

If you love tales of adventure and mountaineering, backed with historic detail, and featuring believable, sympathetic characters, then give Summit a try — and let me know what you think!

Recommended Audiobook:
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Friday, January 13th, 2017

The full title of Trevor Noah’s childhood memoir is Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I picked this audiobook because it had been named a best book of the year by several publications, and because the sample I listened to hooked me immediately.

I can’t say I was a fan of Trevor Noah before this. Really, I knew almost nothing about him except that he was the new host of The Daily Show. But I’m a fan now.

Trevor Noah reads the audiobook himself. He has a wonderful voice and is multilingual, speaking not just the various accents of the characters in the story, but also speaking brief sentences in native languages as he narrates incidents.

The title, Born a Crime, refers to Trevor himself. He was born under apartheid, the son of a black woman and a white man — his very existence evidence of an illegal act — and for the first several years of his life his parents hid him from officials and nosy neighbors.

The quality of the storytelling in this book is amazing. Trevor relates many experiences, beginning in his childhood and progressing through the start of his career as a comedian. Throughout, he reflects with great insight, intelligence, and empathy on what he’s seen and what he’s done. He speaks truths without outrage, but rather in a “let’s talk, let’s get real” style that is easy to listen to, but still powerfully communicates the hardships and the challenges faced by those who endure bigotry, poverty, and destructive cultures. He delves into issues of misogyny and the rights of women, and the incredible strength, independence and stubbornness of his own mother. He discusses racism, skin color, apartheid, poverty, education, the police, life in an abusive home, and making a living when your options are few.

Despite all that, this book is in no sense a downer. Quite the opposite: The strength of spirit and determination that exists in every story that Trevor tells is both inspiring and uplifting.

Highly recommended.

Recommended Reading: Ninefox Gambit

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

I started, and failed to finish, three or four novels before picking up Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. If you’re looking for something different, something challenging and endlessly interesting — a puzzle to be figured out — try this one.

I’m still not sure what it’s about.

Usually I say very little about the plot or even the background of the books that I recommend here, because I think a book is best appreciated without preconceptions. But I’m making an exception this time. So if you’re already intrigued, go off and read Ninefox Gambit. Otherwise, read on for just a bit of discussion about the book.

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Recommended Links

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Two recent articles you might find interesting:

At The Atlantic Joe Fassler has gathered what for him is “The Best Writing Advice of 2016.” These are quotes from literary writers talking about writing. I was particularly interested in Lydia Millet’s thoughts on writing fiction that’s based around current conflicts and politics:

In approaching these ideas in a fictional vein I’ve had to wrestle, on the technical side, with the trickiness of balancing the aesthetics of contemporary writing (grounded in the subjective and averse to the didactic, committed to the personal and hostile to the general) with what might unfashionably be called a moral vision
[…]
In fiction, philosophical, political, or religious ideas tend to be most convincing when they arise organically out of a character.

And in the same article, some cold truth from Mark Haddon:

I’ve come to accept that I’m going to be bored and frustrated for long periods. I’ve come to accept that I’ll be regularly dissatisfied […] I have to be patient and slog onward and trust that something better will come along.

…for me, the job of writing is pretty uphill most of the time. It’s like climbing a mountain — you get some fantastic views when you pause or when you get to the top, but the actual process can be tough. I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy writing, and I wish them all the best, but I’m not like that.

This describes my own process with eerie accuracy. I know there are people who think writing is fun. Wish I were one of them!

At the New York Times, Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes about “The Great A.I. Awakening.” This is a fascinating article on “how Google used artificial intelligence to transform Google Translate, one of its more popular services — and how machine learning is poised to reinvent computing itself.” Read the whole thing if you have time. If you don’t, at least read the epilogue. Here are a few excerpts:

We’re not only talking about three and a half million truck drivers who may soon lack careers. We’re talking about inventory managers, economists, financial advisers, real estate agents. What Brain did over nine months is just one example of how quickly a small group at a large company can automate a task nobody ever would have associated with machines.
[…]
The most important thing happening in Silicon Valley right now is not disruption. Rather, it’s institution-building — and the consolidation of power — on a scale and at a pace that are both probably unprecedented in human history.
[…]
…once machines can learn from human speech, even the comfortable job of the programmer is threatened.

I wonder how long until computers get good at writing near-future science fiction…?

Hey, maybe the Red is already here.

Recommended Reading: Darktown

Friday, November 4th, 2016

darktown_by_thomas_mullenThomas Mullen is the author of Darktown, a novel set in Atlanta shortly after World War II, in a time when black police officers were first allowed to work in the Atlanta Police Department.

Darktown succeeds on multiple levels. First, it’s very well written, with gorgeous detail in both setting and characters, without ever going overboard.

It also works as a straight-up crime novel as police officers attempt to unravel the mystery behind the murder of a young woman.

But the most powerful aspect of the novel for me was the immersion into the violently segregated culture of the deep south during this period of history. The oppression and brutalization of black communities is rendered in detail, but what’s also made clear is how difficult it is to change the status quo when ordinary citizens, including law enforcement, fully support the authoritarian culture and are thoroughly trained to crush any dissent. Yes, this novel is a well-timed reminder of what authoritarianism and bigotry mean for a society.

Despite this, Darktown is not a “downer.” It’s a fascinating, well-told tale of courage.

I listened to the audio edition. I really enjoyed the narrator’s voice, finding it both pleasant to listen to and easy to understand, with the drawback that the voices of the different characters tended to sound the same, and at several points I wasn’t sure who was speaking.

In my own writing, I’ve begun using more speech tags – he said / she said – since I started listening to audiobooks. Speech tags aren’t always necessary if you’re reading text. If two characters are in conversation, a paragraph break indicates when a different character is speaking. But a listener can’t see this, so additional speech tags can be necessary for clarity. Something to keep in mind, for those of you who write.

Persistent Technologies

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

I’ve been catching up on my reading, and chanced to find — almost simultaneously — two articles looking at the potential advantages of old, seemingly outdated technologies.

The first, “What An NFL Coach, The Pentagon And Election Systems Have In Common” starts off with a discussion of Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, angrily rejecting the use of tablets during football games, calling the technology “undependable.” It goes on to talk about the inherent security of the paper trail generated by America’s old-fashioned and decentralized voting system, and the potential security in the antiquated software behind some weapons systems. As someone who is still using an ancient version of Windows on my writing computer, I am in total sympathy with the latter. 🙂

The second article, Why the US Military Still Flies Cold-War Era Planes looks at old, “persistent” technology from a different angle. The U2 was first built in 1955. It’s still flying today. Why? Because it still does the job:

“With its interchangeable nose cones and sophisticated surveillance equipment, there’s no reason not to think of the U-2S as a cutting-edge, contemporary technology

Like all technologies, planes are flexible. They change both through use and through the actions of their users. They undergo maintenance and updates…

I like this term, “persistent technology.” It’s a good concept to keep in mind when writing near-future fiction. Not everything has to be shiny and new.

Recommended Reading: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

rosa_brooks_tales_from_the_pentagonHow Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon, by Rosa Brooks, is a wide-ranging overview of the present state of the American military, how we got to this point, the effect of recent changes on both our system of government and on the world at large, the implications for the future, and thoughts on how we can do better.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor, who worked at the Pentagon for two years, and is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy.

She writes that post-9/11 the role of the American military has expanded beyond traditionally “military” functions, taking over territory that once belonged to civilian departments, in particular the Department of State. This happened gradually, as cost-cutting measures reduced the size and effectiveness of civilian departments, leaving the military as the only branch with a budget that allowed it to rise to the task — and as the military took on more tasks, civilian departments were further trimmed. It’s this process that Brooks captures with the book’s title, but she pursues many other subjects.

There are interesting discussions of the way we’ve chosen to see war and peace as polar opposites, as two easily distinguished states — our view being heavily biased by the world wars. “What is war?” is an important question because our laws change depending on whether or not we are “at war.” A state of war allows many actions (killing, indeterminate imprisonment) that are not allowed during peacetime. But a closer look at history offers the idea that there is a continuum between war and peace — the “space between” — that is not all-out war, but is also not peace. And if we accept that we are now — and likely will be for the foreseeable future — caught in this “space between” then we need to develop a legal framework to deal with it.

Brooks also looks at the precedents America has set by asserting “a unilateral right to use force in secret and with little accountability outside the executive branch…”

Her description of the international community is especially disturbing:

“…the international community” struggles to respond effectively to the challenges posed by “failed” states. From the perspective of an alien observer from another planet, the “international community” of the planet earth would surely appear like a failed state writ large; it has proven consistently unable to control the violence of powerful actors (whether states or nonstate entities such as terrorist organizations), control environmental catastrophes such as climate change; remedy astronomically large economic inequities between individuals and societies, constrain the devastating scramble to exploit the earth’s dwindling natural resources, or address crises such as global epidemics.”

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything offers a lot to learn and ponder. It’s well researched and well argued. Recommended.

Links, News, and Recommendations

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

Links
It’s easy to tell when I’m trying to catch up on my nonfiction reading — that’s when I start posting links here.

At USNI News, Megan Eckstein has an article titled “CMC Neller: Marines Now Training to Battle Drones, Fight Without Comms”, which is a pretty interesting look at exactly what the title says, and has some intersections with events in The Red trilogy — particularly the last action sequence in Going Dark.

And on a completely different subject, “The Cost of Holding On” is a short post at The New York Times by Carl Richards, offering some excellent advice on letting go of grudges:

“There is an actual cost to holding onto things we should let go of. It can come in the form of anger, frustration, resentment or something even worse. The question is, can you really afford to keep paying the bill?”

I’ve seen people hold on tight to the memory of slights, and to grudges that are twenty, thirty, forty years old, or more. It’s not worth it, folks. All that energy spent on resentment could be so much better spent in positive ways.

Recommended Audiobook
My latest audiobook rave is Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World. This is a nonfiction read, exploring the remarkable extent of government and corporate surveillance and data collection in the modern world. The book was originally published in 2014. In the realm of technology a two-year-old book might be suspected of being dated, but this one felt utterly relevant. I found it fascinating.

Rebis edition - Polish language - The RedNews
The Nanotech Succession Omnibus is an ebook that includes my first four novels, all taking place in a shared story world. The omnibus has been available at my webstore, but it can now be purchased from Kobo if that’s your preferred vendor. Find it here.

The Red now has its second translated edition. The first was Italian. This one is a Polish-language edition by the publisher Rebis. I like that red font on the cover!

Final Work-In-Progress Report + Various

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Work-In-Progress Report
I haven’t been posting much lately, have I? That’s because I’ve mostly been writing, with time off for workouts — but even the workouts stopped a few days ago as other chores intruded.

Anyway, as noted in the title, this is my last work-in-progress report for the new novel, because that novel is officially “done.”

Of course, in this business there are many phases of “done,” and there will certainly be more revisions to come, but it’s now with my agent, so that’s a draft!

John W. Campbell Memorial Award
The Hugo Awards, given out at Worldcon this past weekend, were casting shade, but the winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award was also announced during the convention — and no, it wasn’t me. The award went to Eleanor Lerman for her novel Radiomen. Congratulations to Eleanor! As it turns out, Going Dark was tied for second place alongside Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself.

Follow this link for details.

Recommended Audiobook
Malka Older’s Infomocracy is a near-future look at politics and the way a global system of “micro-democracies” might work — and of course how people, being people, will attempt to game the system. The story takes place during a world-wide election, held every ten years, in which “centinels” — geographic divisions of a hundred-thousand people — are each choosing new leadership, and there is a lot of competition among the various political groups to pick up these new centinels.

The world building behind Infomocracy is absolutely brilliant and at times some of the observations made in the story are quite funny — but be aware that there is a lot of detail as the characters discuss statistics, voting, and political platforms. Think of Infomocracy as a bureaucrat’s thriller. I won’t be at all surprised to see it on next year’s Campbell Memorial list.

The audio narration is by Christine Marshal and I thought it was very well done.

Book Rave: Red Rising

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Red Rising by Pierce BrownI don’t remember hearing much about Pierce Brown’s novel Red Rising within the SFF genre, but it’s been a hugely popular book, with 3,200 Amazon reviews averaging 4.5 stars. Even after I finally noticed it, I assumed it was a YA novel, and I’m not particularly interested in YA, so I didn’t pursue it. What finally persuaded me to take a serious look was an enthusiastic recommendation from @alexvdl0 on Twitter. (See? Word of mouth really does work!)

I started reading the sample and was hooked almost immediately. Red Rising is set on Mars, in a highly stratified society. It’s the story of a young man named Darrow, born into the lowest strata. It’s told in his own words, and in some sense it’s a study of how a very skilled writer can employ standard tropes and make them fascinating again.

I was swept away — which doesn’t actually happen all that often anymore.

(Some slight spoilers follow…)

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