Fun books

by Henry Farrell on May 23, 2006

Between grading, our four month old, and a forthcoming CT seminar, I haven’t had much chance to write book reviews recently (I have a couple backed up, including one of Glyn Morgan’s _The Idea of a European Superstate_, which I’ve had half-written since last summer and promise to finish in the next few weeks). In the meantime, I have read a couple of SF/F books recently which I’d recommend as fun summer reading for those so inclined. First, Charles Stross’s _The Clan Corporate_ (“Powells”: , “Amazon”:, which I enjoyed more than his _Accelerando_, even though the latter has been nominated for umpteen awards. It’s the third of a series, and demonstrates that Stross has a nasty sociological imagination . There’s a nice set-up in the second book of the series where the protagonist (a vaguely left-wing journalist) argues that there’s simply no reason why the king and assorted nobles of a particularly squalid mediaeval state wouldn’t welcome industrialization, as they’d all get rich. You can nearly hear the author cackling into his sleeve as he writes this, and _The Clan Corporate_ demonstrates at length how horribly blase liberal assumptions of this sort can go wrong. _A Connecticut Yankee_ it isn’t. Second, Naomi Novik’s _His Majesty’s Dragon_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”:,) and its follow-up, _Throne of Jade_ (the third book in the series is coming out in a couple of days). The premise for these books sounds almost preposterously horrible – Patrick O’Brian meets Anne McCaffrey – but it _works_. Somehow she reconciles a story about intelligent dragons and their human riders with an early nineteenth century England that is very similar to our own. It helps that Novik’s a very good writer, and quietly witty too. Both recommended.



Bill Gardner 05.23.06 at 5:45 pm

I agree about the Clan novels: they are less interesting but more enjoyable than Accelerando (BTW, Amazon says that another novel in the Accelerando world is in the works).

Patrick O’Brian met Anne McCaffrey where? A concert by Tom Waits and the Tallis Scholars? A seminar on ethics by HH the Dalai Lama and Tom Delay?


John Quiggin 05.23.06 at 7:40 pm

Snap! I just read the first two Clan novels, and I also have a half-written review of Glyn Morgan (in my head, not on the hard disk, but that’s a minor detail).

I agree with Bill on “less interesting but more enjoyable”, but I still think Accelerando is deserving of its awards. I think it’s the right way to write about the Singularity, if you’re going to do that.


Bill Gardner 05.23.06 at 9:52 pm

John, no disagreement. What makes Accelerando less enjoyable is that it is so clear that after the Singularity, the world isn’t about us anymore. The other writers in this genre (including Stross in the ‘time-like diplomacy’ books) can only make human characters and actions matter through contrivances. The Eschaton in Iron Sunrise, for example, essentially freezes history in a pre-Singular state so as to pre-empt competition from other post-humans. The Accelerando world of self-aware derivative contracts (or whatever they are) is funny, but deeply inhospitable.


Vance Maverick 05.23.06 at 11:46 pm

Could you guys recommend something other than “SF/F” for once? Yes, I realize I’m grousing stereotypically about the flavors of free ice cream on offer (and the portions are so small!)….but never a volume of “straight” fiction? or of poetry?


Bill Gardner 05.23.06 at 11:57 pm

Vance — I recently got round to reading Cormac McCarthy. Get Blood Meridian from the library (so you can return it if you feel PTSD developing…). It has something of the feeling of Njal’s Saga, except the Vikings were more civilized than the Texans.


Vance Maverick 05.24.06 at 12:26 am

Thanks, Bill. I’ll check it out (in both senses) again — it’s been eight years or so since I tried it last.

To respond in kind, I’d highly recommend the recent Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (tr. Constantine). The Red Cavalry stories are excellent and consistently surprising (be warned, though, they too may bring on the PTSD); but there are other gems as well, such as “The Story of My Dovecote”.


John Quiggin 05.24.06 at 6:01 am

Another Snap! Blood Meridian is on my bedside table waiting to be read.


Henry 05.24.06 at 6:41 am

bq. The Accelerando world of self-aware derivative contracts (or whatever they are) is funny, but deeply inhospitable.

Yes – this is what I liked the most about the book too. Seems to me that given the claim that the Singularity is strictly unimaginable _ex ante_, writers tend to use it as a sort of Rorschach test in which they (more or less self-consciously) see what they came in with. So we get a lot of extropian/technolibertarian views of the Singularity unleashing radical individuality – and Stross’s response which I suspect is a deliberate critique, and is really imo a satire of globalization run amok. Whether our future belongs to incredibly complex financial instruments, our present surely does.

Vance – fair enough. I don’t know much about modern poetry – my own tastes are stuck in the 1950s or so – some of the standards (Yeats, Eliot, Moore etc) as well as some who aren’t very fashionable today (Jarrell). Although his poetry criticism seems to be undergoing a minor revival. In my defence, while I surely haven’t posted about Babel (I’ve never read him) – I have “posted”: about someone else writing about Babel. I recommend the Batuman essay wholeheartedly – and plan to write about the new issue of N+1 when I get my hands on it.

Bill – “Blood Meridian” is one of my favourite books.


Bill Gardner 05.24.06 at 7:43 am

A few more from the recent and recommended:

David Warsh, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Read it on Tyler Cowen’s recommendation in MR, and the dude is never wrong. Maybe John has an opinion about whether it gets the story right.

Allegra Goodman, Intuition. The story flags a bit, but she gets the milieu of NIH extramural life perfectly.

And I liked McCarthy’s latest, No Country for Old Men, even though it was poorly reviewed. I heard that Tommy Lee Jones bought the rights and some of No Country takes place in the same town where The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada happens, obviously no accident (good movie, BTW).


fatwhiteduke 05.24.06 at 7:48 am

What about “Nova”, by Samuel R Delany? The revival of the Tarot is just one amusing element in this future world.


Cranky Observer 05.24.06 at 10:17 am

> Patrick O’Brian met Anne McCaffrey where? A
> concert by Tom Waits and the Tallis Scholars?
> A seminar on ethics by HH the Dalai Lama and
> Tom Delay?

Well, first you have to keep in mind that after his death it turned out that almost everything Patrick O’Brian said about himself was a fib.

But back in the late 1980s I used to get a Patrick O’Brian Newsletter once a quarter from the publisher of the Aubrey series (W.W. Norton?). O’Brian contributed some essays about his experiences traveling around the promo circuit. Based on what he wrote I doubt he would have minded meeting McCaffrey (and contrary to his public persona I suspect he did know who she was).


My favorite of his essays was about his visit to the US Navy base at Norfolk. He went there expecting to sign books in the PX and give a lecture in a classroom; he was led into an auditorium with 3000 Navy dudes seated in ranks from admirals in the front row to ordinary seaman in the 3rd balcony – all waiting expectently for his words of wisdom.


Vance Maverick 05.24.06 at 11:26 am

No worries, Henry — I find it very hard to orient myself in
contemporary poetry. There’s so much of it, and like any poetry, it’s
hard to assess. I generally share Ron Silliman‘s frame of reference,
for example (if not his sensibility), but I can’t imagine keeping up
with the volume of stuff he discusses.

That said, there’s lots of older poetry out there waiting for one to
find it. Silliman recently mentioned Besmilr
, whose work turns out to be really rewarding. She
published mainly in the ’60s, and was quite at home in the postmodern
poetics of the period; but she also belonged to an earlier generation,
and to a vanishing rural vernacular culture. Searching now, I see
Silliman posted an appreciation
of this book when it came out — beyond what he says there, I would
draw a connection to the poetry of D.H. Lawrence.

(I’m not really sure how to pronounce her name, but this
notes that her maiden name was Bess Miller Moore.)

I’m not complaining that you-all’re failing in your duty to broaden me. I’m just struck that the literary gamut is even narrower than the political one.


Vance Maverick 05.24.06 at 11:30 am

Hmm, I botched the links in that. Mainly I meant to link to Brigham’s book at Small Press Distribution.


John Quiggin 05.25.06 at 3:44 am

“Seems to me that given the claim that the Singularity is strictly unimaginable ex ante, writers tend to use it as a sort of Rorschach test in which they (more or less self-consciously) see what they came in with.”

Of course, projections about the future of the Internet have always been like that. To give a classical analogy (C21 style), it’s like the mirror of Erised in Harry Potter – you see what you most wish for.

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