the hypothetical maximum data transmission rate of a telecommunications medium

Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

William Gibson, Spook Country

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-06-10

spook_countryJust finished the latest from Gibson (or at least the latest as far as I am concerned). I started a couple of months ago and got stuck on the first chapter and put it down again. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago this time it caught, and I fairly raced through it.

It follows the standard Gibson convention of having N independent players doing their thing on separate paths, and then converging linearly to the story’s climax. In this case it’s a riff on the Repo Man suitcase-in-the-trunk-of-the-car, and no-one’s really quite sure what’s in it. There’s the inevitable omniscient puppet-master with unlimited deep pockets (and a mag lev bed). There’s no sex on the bed, but then again, I don’t read Gibson to read love stories.

Technology is still present, although in a much more muted form than his earlier works. The cyberpunk theme has been stripped out, and the result is a fairly sharp social commentary.

Two things really annoyed me. The first was the ease with which the various characters in the book managed to snag open wifi networks. These days they’re rarer than you think. I’ve even reconfigured my own router at home to lock down my network. And from what I’ve read, free municipal wifi isn’t very widespread in America. The second plot flaw was an accident where a car crashes at high speed into a lamp post outside a bar… and the two occupants more or less walk away unhindered.

That said, it’s an entertaining yarn with lots of wry observations of 21st century life done with Gibson’s razored turns of phrase. And when the mysterious secret is finally revealed, it’s not so much of an anticlimax as in All Tomorrow’s Parties or Idoru. In fact, it’s quite credible. I give him credit for taking a fairly simple plot and weaving a couple of hundred pages around it.


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Douglas Kennedy, The Woman in the Fifth

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-02-17

Finished reading The Woman in the Fifth last week. I found it a bit disconcerting with its drift into the supernatural, but well, why not?

Kennedy paints Paris very well in the story, with neither condescension nor misplaced veneration. He captures the problem of immigration and the plight of the sans papiers with precision and at the same time without pathos.

What I liked least (or rather, what was the weakest aspect of what is otherwise a very entertaining and at times moving tale) was that the main character Harry Ricks is forced to flee the United States due to circumstances far beyond his control. And which aren’t revealed for some time in the narrative, and when you finally learn what happened it’s a bit of an anticlimax.

I hope Kennedy is exaggerating a little at how a simple fait divers can bring down a person in America, but hey, drunk Japanese finance ministers commit political hari-kiri (come to think of it, so do English members of parliament caught wearing frilly panties — or not, as the case may be), so maybe small town University professors have to, as well.

I did like the Faustian bargain aspect of the story. Kind of like winning the lottery… just so long as you spend the precise amount of winnings, each day, every day.

Walk on the wild side

Walk on the wild side

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The Gambler, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-01-18

I stumbled across this page via Energy Bulletin, a site that continues to impress me with its eclectic choice of links to articles on energy descent and peak oil.

Here, then, is a short story by Paolo Bacigalupi, whose name harks to a more mediterranean heritage, but writes with extraordinary vividness of epic cultural clash between East and West. It brought back memories of reading James Clavell’s Shogun and Taipan that I read all those years ago, being as they were my first encounter with the Asian concept of face.

He relates the story of Ong, a Laotian refuge web journalist, writing stories about environmental collapse that no-one cares to read except to assuage their guilty conscience.

“You need to up your average. You’ve got almost no readers selecting you for Page One. And even when they do subscribe to your feed, they’re putting it in the third tier.”

“Spinach reading,” I supply.


“Mr. Mackley calls it spinach reading. When people feel like they should do something with virtue, like eat their spinach, they click to me.

With deft strokes, Bacigalupi draws a melancholic portrait of a quiet young man, cut off from his roots and adrift and lonely in a vaguely dystopian future America.  Ong needs to boost his ratings, his readership, or lose his job. (Plus ça change…)

Readership is measured in web clicks, feed subscriptions, pings, trackbacks and buzz generated from social networks whose precursors can be found in the likes of Plaxo, Facebook, del.icio.us and so on. And when I look at the statistics that my own tiny blog generates (on the order of single-digit visits per day), I can’t help but feel a certain kinship.

I’d buy the book it’s published in (it’s the closing story in a collection of short stories from different authors), but I worry that it would be like buying a CD for one great song and discovering that the rest are crappy. Sometimes you come across a story that is so powerful that reading something else straight afterwards feels like a letdown. This is one such story.

Update 2009-03-30: in a particularly strange episode of life imitates art, Robert X. Cringely has an article on the role of automated computer trading on the collapse of AIG and the US mortgage market. He paints the same picture of a single action occurring in the infosphere that generates a buzz, a glow, and creating a chain reaction of attention that will bring the house down, to the immense satisfaction (and profitability) of the same person who carried out the initial trade.

Reading the comments to the blog indicates that his logic is a bit faulty, but I think there’s some element of logic to the underlying premise. In any case, there’s a resonance with The Gambler that is hard to shake off.

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The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, T. E. Carhart

Posted by dlandgren on 2008-10-20

Pem sent me this book some time back, and I finally got around to reading it.

It’s the story of an American writer living in Paris, who learnt to play the piano as a child and after a long hiatus decides to take it up again. That means acquiring a piano for his Parisian apartment and taking up lessons again.

The tale begins a bit wonkily, with a barely credible story of a store keeper who didn’t want his custom because the he lacked the secret handshake. The premise is that you need to be introduced in order to do business in France. It might be the case of this particular shop, but it definitely isn’t the rule. No matter where you are in the world, les affaires sont les affaires, and you can’t pick and choose who you care to do business with, especially when trying to earn a living selling pianos in a city whose dwellings aren’t really designed to cope with them.

I suspect Carhart was more a victim of a aging Le Pen sympathiser suspicious of un étranger, américain de surcroît, than lacking a suitable introduction that would let him into the back of the shop. I have a feeling that the owner would not give a French person the same amount of grief if they walked in off the street. Things take a turn for the better when Luc, who takes over the business is willing to take a chance with Carhart and allows him in.

The story then hits its stride, with a series of vignettes and recollections relating to buying, playing and tuning pianos. I kept hoping he would hold a lens up to French society and look at it as deeply as he did to pianos, but regretfully that side of the story never really moves out of the background. Despite this minor flaw it’s an enjoyable read.

For a detailed account of contemporary French society, Théodore Zeldin’s The French is a good book to dig into, even if it was written in the 1980s.

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Returning to Earth, Jim Harrison

Posted by dlandgren on 2008-09-30

(It occurs to me that I should use this blog to note the books I read, to remember later on. Maybe some pattern will come out of it).

So, Jim Harrison‘s latest book. I devoured all his books he had written ten years ago over the space of a year, and perhaps nothing else of his since. I found this book a bit more difficult to read than his previous works. It’s written in four voices, four chronologically sequential narratives to lay out the story. I certainly didn’t do it justice, picking it up from time to time rather than sitting down and reading it in one stretch (it’s not particularly long). And thus, in my disjointed reading, I kept getting confused by all the names and trying to remember who was related to who, and from what angle according to who was narrating.

I should probably reread it again to really make my mind up, but at the moment I think I still prefer Legends of the Fall, Dalva and The Woman Lit By Fireflies.

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