Category Archives: BookReview

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Anchor, 1997 (2015 reprint) 304 pages, C$21.97 pb, ISBN 978-0385686037

In reviewing a book, it’s hard to give bigger praise than to explain why a book led to concrete action in the reviewer’s life. It’s commonly accepted that books that have the biggest impact lead to real changes in behaviour, to perceptible improvements in the reader’s life. But Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood has me thinking along opposite lines: What if a book’s ultimate success could be measured in carefully considered and embraced inaction?

I’m not sure Bryson himself would approve. After all, he has made his reputation as a writer by doing things and then writing about them. Best-known (if unfairly reductively so) as a travel writer, Bryson has proven himself an uncommonly polyvalent writer, notably by delivering a compulsively readable scientific vulgarization tome A Short History of Nearly Everything that floored me when I read it a few years ago. A Walk in the Woods is closer to a classical travel book, albeit with a twist—it’s all about hiking a few thousand miles not too far away from Bryson’s home.

The Appalachian Trail, should it need to be reintroduced, it a 3,000-mile trail that goes from Georgia to Maine, crossing rivers, peaks, valleys, roads and other features of the Eastern United States. Maintained largely by volunteers (with some assistance from the U.S. Park Service), it is attempted by thousands of people every year, even though a much smaller percentage (10–25%, depending on whom you believe) manage to walk the entire trail during the hospitable season. Bryson was 44 when we decided he’d attempt to hike as much of the trail as possible. The book is a journal of his experiences.

Newcomers to Bryson’s style will be quickly hooked by the authors’ breezy style, equally laden with fact as it can be compulsively funny. Bryson masters the art of delivering exposition with a comedian’s touch, and so A Walk in the Woods can drop lengthy passages about the U.S. Park Service’s fondness for building roads, the environmental collapse of the American chestnut tree or Thoreau’s conflicted feelings about nature and make it feel like highly entertaining reading. It helps that, in-between the delicious exposition, we get personal anecdotes about Bryson walking the trails, nearly succumbing to hypothermia, and the perils of walking alongside a vaguely disreputable friend.

Then, of course, there’s the minutia of long-distance hiking. Completing the Appalachian Trail means not falling prey to injuries, bears, dehydration, lost bearings, occasional murders and other annoying hikers. Bryson spares few details in telling readers about setting up camp in the wilderness, spending days without washing, being terrified by night-time noises, the shock of reintegrating civilization and the bare comforts of the trail for months on end.

(Those who came to the book by way of the Robert Redford movie will be happy to find out that while much of the book’s first half is adapted reasonably well to the big screen, the second half of the book is almost completely different, and feels far more interesting than the pat third act manufactured by the screenwriters. Plus there’s a lot more of Bryson’s delightful exposition to read.)

I started reading A Walk in the Woods still clinging to the notion that hiking the Appalachian Trail, as unlikely as it would be to arrange (“Hi Boss; I’m going for a walk… I’ll be back in a few months”) would be a pretty cool thing to do. By the time I was finished reading the book, though, Bryson’s meticulous description of what it implies had put me off the project forever. Hiking still seems like a great idea; hiking for a few days still sounds pretty good to me. But the 3000 miles, six-month odyssey from Georgia to Maine? Nope, no way, I’m good.

Hence my assertion that some of the best books are those who carefully lead us to a measured lack of action. Thank you, Bill Bryson, for curing me from that unrealistic notion—I’ll sleep better knowing that I do not, in fact, want to do this. On the other hand, I will read more of Bryson’s books…



The Fold, Peter Clines

Crown, 2015, 384 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-41829-3

So … it took April Fool’s Day to get me reading fiction again.

Let me explain. Over the past few years, I have almost entirely stopped reading fiction. I can blame various factors, but the truth is that I’ve fallen out of the habit and while I still think that written fiction is a noble and fun activity, I find myself watching movies, reading up on the endless circus of American politics or simply doing other things rather than cracking open a book. I have no doubts that, in time, I will gravitate back to written fiction. Right now, though, it’s a bit of a struggle. Having a smartphone is great for ebooks, but it’s also great for just about everything else as well.

April Fools’ Day was a chance to do better. You have to understand that I don’t particularly like the festivities of April First. I don’t particularly like putting false information in my brain, and given the raging epistemological debate we seem to be having thanks to the Trump administration, this disdain for fake facts, even funny ones, reached a breaking point this year. So, I decided to unplug for a day. No news. No blogs. No forums. No social media. No exposure to made-up stories passing themselves off as reality.

But what do to with all of that extra time? Well, I decided to read fiction. I’ve had my eye on Peter Clines’ The Fold for a few months (great cover, arresting blurb, unknown author—it didn’t take much more than that to get me going when I was reading 200+ novels per year) and decided that a self-imposed exile from the net could be a great way to plunge back into fiction.

It actually worked. In a sobering demonstration of what’s made possible when you stop reading Reddit, I ended up reading most of The Fold in a single day, in small increments as I substituted reading prose instead of refreshing feeds. Hurrah!

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I’m all that taken with The Fold, especially during its last third. In the grand tradition of SF novels built on mysteries, it’s no surprise if the tease is better than the revelation, if the promise of a mind-blowing explanation is far better than the collapsing of those probabilities in a single observation.

But let’s enjoy the premise again as hyper-smart protagonist Mike, hiding away his prodigious intelligence as a high school English teacher, is recruited by an old classmate to investigate a mysterious research facility. The scientists there claim to have invented instantaneous teleportation, but there’s something strange about their experiment. The interminable delay between proof-of-concept and publishing their results. The lack of documentation. The constant frictions between team members. Not to mention the very strange episode in which a test subject was institutionalized after claiming that he didn’t know his wife. As an outsider with a perfect photographic memory, Mike should be able to piece together the pieces of the puzzle … right?

The novel’s first third enjoyably sets up the parameters of the investigation and takes us to the San Diego lab in which this is taking place. The second third ups the tension with even stranger developments, a few revelations and even deeper mysteries. While the characters aren’t that memorably portrayed, there’s a pleasant tension to the proceedings as our protagonist knows that he’s seen as the enemy … and small mysteries just keep accumulating. This is a kind of Science Fiction I like a lot—set in the real world but with just enough of an intrusion from the future to be interesting. The puzzle-box aspect of the central mystery has readers developing their own theories as to what is happening (I had my own theories about members of the team secretly building more teleportation nodes), and as long as anything isn’t pinned down then everything is still possible.

Then the answers start coming down and we realize that The Fold is far more wobbly than at a first glance. The novel loses credibility once Victorian science is brought in. It loses a little bit more credibility once the nature of The Fold is explained (raising further inconsistencies in trying to explain inconsistencies) and then pretty much goes into lalaland once the novel switches gear to a bog-standard portal horror mode. There’s a difference between “seen this before and it still interests me” and “seen this before and I’m not that interested” that’s clearly shown in the evolution from The Fold’s first to third act. I was able to forgive much of the prose’s clumsiness as long as I wanted to know more. It got worse when I stopped being fascinated, though. (It also explains why I read most but not all of the book on a single day.)  It doesn’t help, either, that The Fold’s own set of internal values quickly go from Science Fiction (new technology! How awesome!) to horror (this abomination must be destroyed at all costs!) along the way—I read Science Fiction because I like SF’s ethos of progress through technology, not because I was looking for another lesson in how Pandora must be put back in its box. For one thing, Hope was at the bottom of Pandora’s box—and for another, there’s no doubt that what’s been created once can be re-created, and the curiously lackadaisical response from a few “Men in Black” late in the novel feels like a dramatic miscalculation that critically wounds the novel rather than enhance it.

I won’t hammer The Fold much further for a weaker third act—such is the most common fate of any novel building itself around a mystery rather than more straightforward plotting. The Fold isn’t the first nor the last SF novel to lose interest as it reveals everything. To focus on the positive, I really like the protagonist’s unique skills and the various defences he has developed against them—at a time when ever-knowledgeable protagonists are often portrayed as a justified psychopath (as in: nearly every Sherlock-inspired character out there), Mike stands as a beacon of excessive humility. There’s a cute romance woven through, even though I think some details of it are off. When I say that The Fold could have been a Preston/Child novel, I’m not being as dismissive as you may think.

From a purely personal perspective, coming back to fiction after a lengthy pause only to wrestle with a novel with such clearly defined strengths and weaknesses is like coming home. As a reviewer, I enjoy getting down and dirty with a flawed work. It’s good sport—in fact, voicing objections to a novel is the point of reading critically. Keep your perfect novels and your unmitigated trash to yourself—right now, I’d rather have more fun nitpicking and recognizing passing competence in a novel with both highs and lows. Reading fiction is supposed to be fun, after all. One thing’s for sure: I won’t wait an entire year to turn off the wireless and get lost in another novel.

Lego: A Love Story, Jonathan Bender

Wiley, 2010, 296 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 978–0470407028

As an adult who has rediscovered the joys of Lego bricks over the past six months, I’m better placed than most in appreciating Jonathan Bender’s journey as described in Lego: A Love Story. Not that rediscovering Lego as an adult is an unusual phenomenon. Adult Fans of Lego (AFOLs) even have a term, “The Dark Ages”, to describe the period between the time we stop playing with Lego as children/teenagers, and the time we pick them up again as an adult.

In my case, I abandoned Lego bricks as an early teenager after being a big Space set fan (partially motivated, if I recall correctly, by my younger brother taking up my bricks) and then kind of … didn’t care for more than two decades even though my feelings toward Lego were never less than entirely positive. It took my daughter reaching her brick-playing years for me to rediscover Lego, first through Disney Princess sets (for her), then Creator sets (for me). We’re now pleasantly expanding our respective collections via the Friends (for her) and City (for me) lines, and we’re both trying our hands at original creations. Reading about Lego is an associated side effect of this rekindled passion.

So when Bender describes the end of his own Dark Ages in Lego: A Love Story, I’m right there along with him. As he picks up the bricks, we get to see him think about his childhood Lego passion, discover the world of adult fans, gradually join the world of Lego conventions and collectors, and wrap it all up with his feelings as he becomes an expectant father.

There are other, more strictly informational books about Lego out there. If you want the official history, grab The Lego Book, a lavish Dorling Kindersley production that can be supplemented by separate tomes on sets and minifigurines. If you want a more detailed history of Lego and a factually exhausting description of nearly every line ever launched by Lego, Sarah Herman’s A Million Little Bricks will be enough. But if you want to get into the head of an AFOL, then Lego: A Love Story is for you. It’s informative, fascinating, partially heartfelt and truly says more about Lego than a dry history of the toy could ever do.

It’s not perfect, mind you. At times, it feels very deliberate—the kind of artificial experience that is motivated by a book contract along the lines of “I will spend a year immersing myself in the world of Lego, make heartwarming parallels with my own life and deliver an emotional conclusion.”  The book even has a Chekhov’s Lego set ready to be assembled at a thematically appropriate moment that we can see coming far in advance. This is a documentary with an archetypical plot and at times we can see the bare planks of the structure. (It doesn’t help that, looking at Bender’s online presence, he focused a lot on Lego from 2009 to 2010, and then went very quiet on the topic—I can certainly understand that raising a young child as a writer requires focus, but it doesn’t help the feeling that part of the book is hobby-for-hire.)  Many smaller flaws do stem from this framework. Some of Bender’s early experiences in getting back to Lego feel faux-naïve (wow, they invented a brick separator!), as would befit someone wrapping a too-neat structure over a chaotic process. Later on, some promising plot threads are also abandoned midway through (such as the author wondering if he fell in with the bad boys of adult Lego fandom), which is perhaps inevitable for a book focusing on such a short duration. There’s a delicate balance between being new enough to the hobby to talk about it as a discovery, and being seasoned enough to talk about it with the authority of experience—but Bender does get most of it right despite a few slips along the way.

On the other hand, there is a lot to simply love about Lego: A Love Story. Bender’s thought processes as he gets in deeper Lego fandom are near-universal, and his ability to clearly describe some of the more subtle pleasures of Lego fandom (assembling an original creation that matches the initial vision, for instance) is eloquent. As a journalist working on a book, he gets to go places that other AFOLs would envy: Legoland in Denmark; behind the scenes at Legoland San Diego; a visit at Lego’s corporate U.S. headquarters in Connecticut; peering inside a Bricklink store, helping organize a Lego festival with other AFOLs; and so on. He packs a lot of stuff in the year covered by this book (see above for: writing to fulfill a contract) and we readers get to read along voraciously. Bender’s background as an improv comedian makes for good prose and amusing moments, enlivening a decent journalistic overview of Lego (the company, the toy, the phenomenon) with enough personal moments that he almost comes across as an old friend by the end of the book. Bender is not a Lego employee, so a few darker passages do hint at the less wholesome side of Lego (like all hobbies, it requires time and money that can always be spent on other things) even though they are not explored in depth—like most AFOLs, Bender see Lego building as a wholesome pursuit, and isn’t particularly interested in presenting another side to the Lego story. (Seriously; who hates Lego?)

What I can’t tell you is whether someone without any interest in Lego will enjoy the book. I suspect that it may help illuminate what goes on in an AFOL’s mind (hence a marginal recommendation for spouses, family and friends of committed AFOLs). I’m certainly convinced that AFOLs will like it, but I’m not entirely sure that this is the kind of book to make Dark-Agers rush to the store to pick up new sets again. On the other hand, I did enjoy quite a bit of it … so why worry about others’ reactions? Much of the same can be said about Lego enthusiasts.

Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, David Robertson and Bill Breen

Crown Business, 2013 (2014 reprint), 320 pages, C$23.00 hc, ISBN 978–0307951618

You may think that Lego (the brick, the toy, the brand!) is as eternal as anything else. After all, the Lego brick has existed in its current form since 1958, and we’re now seeing fourth-generation Lego fans putting together their first Duplo sets. Thanks to the movies, the videogames, the omnipresent sections in Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us and every single other toy retailer, Lego appears permanent, immutable—a comforting island of stability in our ever-changing world.

But hang around Lego-related forums long enough, and you will hear a variation on the following story:

In 2003, Lego was six months away from bankruptcy. They’d brought in some MBA CEO to boost profits, but they didn’t know what they were doing and started doing things that weren’t even related to Lego. They had so many different pieces that they sold sets for less than they cost to make. So they booted out the CEO, got back to their roots and Lego became profitable once again.

(A more detailed account can be found on/r/lego/)

It’s a nice story. But it’s never mentioned in official hagiographies such as Dorling Kindersley’s The Lego Book. It’s barely mentioned in more generalist overviews such as A Million Little Bricks: Even in so-called histories of the company, people would rather read about the fun factor of toys than be serious about how Lego lost its way and almost went out of business.

That’s too bad, because there’s a big box of lessons to be learned from Lego’s near-death experience. It’s a complicated story (far more than the above tidy summary may suggest) with elements of irony, comeuppance, resilience and cognitive breakthroughs. Fortunately, David Robertson and Bill Breen took it upon themselves to dig deep into Lego’s recent corporate history and tell us about it in Brick by Brick.

So here’s the longer summary of the story of Lego’s near-death experience: In the late nineties, after a bad 1998 in which Lego posted its first-ever losses, the company took a look at the state of the toy industry and got very worried. Experts were telling them that with the rise in videogames and the shortening of childhood, physical toys such as Lego were doomed to irrelevance. Boys wouldn’t want to play with bricks to build stuff in a creative way: they wanted immediate gratification, stories and game-inspired play. So Lego did what nearly every reasonable business does: it followed the experts and bought heavily into the innovation mantra. They decided to launch several major game-changing projects at once. In doing so, they de-emphasized the Lego brick in favour of action figures, videogames, and simpler construction sets.

It didn’t work. Fans rebelled against the Znap, Primo, Scala and Gallidor lines. The first videogame went nowhere. Lego bet big on Star Wars and Harry Potter sets in a year when new movies in those series weren’t even released. Toy retailers told Lego that the company was arrogant, didn’t listen and didn’t know their own business as well as the people selling Lego sets. A financial study of the company showed that Lego itself did not know how much its playsets cost to make, and that its parts inventory was unmanageable. By 2003, compared to traditional investments, the company had lost” half a million dollars per day, every day, for ten years” [P.68]. While “six months to bankruptcy” is nowhere to be found in Brick by Brick, there’s a passage making it clear that within months, the company was expected to be sold to a larger toy manufacturer: “We didn’t know if we would make it through the year.” [P.99]

But then something remarkable happened: Lego started facing up to its own problems. A relatively new hire from the world of management consulting, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, was tasked to write a report on the problems faced by the company and then, in an improbable twist of fate, was named as co-CEO during the difficult period in which corrections were made. Things did not get better overnight—Lego has to eat a lot of crow in the years following its transformation. Innovative projects were scrapped; assets were sold; people were fired. Traditional Lego strengths, such as its perennial “City” sets, were brought back to the spotlight. Star Wars and Bionicle sets, which kept the company going even during the worst years, taught the company lessons that it hasn’t forgotten.

The aftermath made Lego into the company it is today: It started listening to its retailers, bolstered relationships with adult fans who made an increasingly big part of its business (hence the modular Creator sets that have become essential purchases for AFOLs), made a multimedia strategy template on which its own new franchise could be launched (e.g.; Ninjago, Chima, Nexo Knights), learned how to best invest in videogames and yet managed to keep a wholesome atmosphere around the company.

AFOLs should be forewarned: This is primarily a business book rather than a book by/from Lego enthusiasts. The authors are business experts and academics—they are not fans or bloggers and there’s a nakedly didactic intent to much of the book. In classic business-literature style, every chapter is neatly structured so that it begins by telling you what it’s going to be about, details its main idea, and then wraps up by repeating once again what the chapter was about. This is a style suited for harried executives looking to quickly extract business lessons from the book rather than for casual readers. It may annoy those who aren’t necessarily used to this form. On the other hand, Brick by Brick is pretty good on the details of Lego—there are only a few places where the text doesn’t feel quite right while still being factual—almost as if the authors were slipping into speaking with a slightly different accent that the one shared by Lego fans.

From a strictly business perspective, the message of the book is a refreshing change of pace: Robertson and Breen’s big takeaway is that innovation has to be managed, and that it should remain a complement to the company’s core activities—Lego being renowned for its bricks, anything that challenges the brick should have been seen as a bet and treated accordingly. For businessmen reading the book, the lesson seems to be “innovate cautiously” don’t launch yourself in every direction. Listen to your employees and stakeholders. At a time when galloping Internet innovation fever is finally calming down, it makes for a relevant message.

It’s also worth noting that as much as the slightly longer story of Lego’s near-death experience is more nuanced than the capsule summary told in Lego forums, Brick by Brick does impose a sometimes disjointed narrative on a messier set of events. Robertson and Breen want to sell you their experience and their view on the events, but those are sometimes undermined in the text or by events following the release of the book. Much is made about Bionicle, for instance, and how its approach to building a franchise original to Lego saved the company—while ignoring that Bionicle alone accounted for a sizeable portion of Lego’s ballooning part inventory problems. (Today, Bionicle remains a semi-active footnote in Lego history—few of the parts developed for that theme are still used, even though it led to further “buildable action figures” sub-themes.)  The authors spend a lot of time talking about Lego’s revolutionary entry in board games as the next big thing … except that by 2016–2017, Lego board games are already a mere footnote in Lego history.

(It’s not the only subsequent development that the authors missed, albeit of no fault of their own. One of the biggest stories of Lego’s past five years, for instance, has been the introduction of the “Friends” and “Disney Princesses” lines aimed at girls: sets just as challenging as anything produced for boys, but made of vivid colours, featuring more attractive mini-dolls and backed up by a strong story component, reflecting the slightly different way girls play compared to boys. Speaking Legolese, I am a confirmed Friends fan, and not just because it’s an essential complement to City’s overemphasis on cops-and-robbers sets.)

Such contradictions and blind spots are why Brick by Brick’s conclusions and sequence of events are often to be taken with some skepticism. Far more interesting are the facts of Lego’s bad years and the journalism work that was required to interview enough Lego employees to be able to present such a complete overview of the events. I’ve been reading a lot of Lego books lately, and none have delved into this topic as comprehensively as Brick by Brick. While the book’s business aesthetics can be annoying, while their story often structures itself out of shape in trying to support its unifying theory, while it feels incomplete given the past five years in Lego history, it’s nonetheless a book worthy of a spot on any serious Lego fan’s bookshelf. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate even more the place that Lego occupies in the mind of anyone who’s ever played with those building bricks … and what it takes to stay a permanent reference for three generations.

State of the Site – 2017

From 1996 to 2011, offered monthly publication of roughly eight book reviews and ten movies reviews.  This eventually averaged out to about 96 book reviews and 120 movie reviews per year… not bad for volunteer work.

Due to happy lifestyle changes, however, this rhythm started sputtering in mid-2011. By early 2012, following the birth of my daughter, I placed the site in semi-hiatus. (Slowing down on hobbies isn’t uncommon for new parents, I’m told.) Rather than to publish following a monthly quota, I found myself writing occasional book reviews when the mood struck me (roughly one per month) and jotting down shorted capsule movies reviews, posting the edited results once a year in a massive round-up. As a result, slowed but didn’t stop: While the number of book reviews is down since 2012, the number of movie reviews went up, reflecting my own preferences (some of them a result of circumstance, as in: not taking the bus anymore) for entertainment.

But while the total number of reviews is encouraging, I can’t promise regular updates for the moment.  I end up working best in batches, and while uploading 390 reviews at once isn’t a piece of cake (yes, that happened!), it kind of works better from a pure optimization perspective.  Still: I’m going to try to optimize my life back to a monthly posting schedule, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen. I’ll be scribbling notes in the background and I’m giving myself excuses to not feel forced to put up content.  We’ll see how this goes.

I eventually expect to be back to a more rigorous publishing schedule whenever circumstances allow.  In the meantime, feel free to leave comments!

The Big Short, Michael Lewis

WW Norton, 2010, 320 pages, 36.95$C hc, ISBN 978-0393-07223-5

At the height of the 2008 financial crisis, the old saw “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” came back as a preface to nearly any explanation of the situation. A systematic accumulation of greed had created a ludicrous situation that was destined to fail and when it went, even the so-called smart guys of Wall Street seemed oblivious to the problem facing them. When Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers disappeared, the cause of their problem seems obvious enough—financial speculation based on risky loans. But why did that problem become such a problem? Didn’t anyone see it coming?

As it turned out, plenty of people saw it coming. Many people involved in real estate in the mid-2000s realized that there was an unsustainable bubble going on, fuelled by ridiculously generous mortgages given to people who couldn’t possibly repay them. A much smaller number of people, however, actively bet on the collapse of those mortgages and associated speculative instruments, and it’s their story that Michael Lewis tackles in The Big Short.

The book revolves around four characters—and “characters” is the right word to describe people such as Michael Burry, a mildly autistic medical doctor turned investment managers who pieced together the coming crisis from his own painstaking research. Or Greg Lippmann, who heard about the crisis and became determined to make a profit from it. Or Steve Eisman, a morally righteous crusader who saw in the coming collapse of the housing market both a vindication of his own cynical views and the ghastly realization that he was still an idealist at heart. Or Charlie Geller, a boutique investor specializing in speculative pessimism, who made even-crazier bets against the fundamental values of the American economy. (Notably absent are any extended mentions of the rather most famous John Paulson, most likely in the interest of allowing four lesser-known stories to be told.)

As a lens through which to see the 2008 financial crisis, adopting the viewpoint of those who actually benefited from the events, The Big Short takes an ironic stance toward the usual triumphalism of business stories. Sure, our heroes made money … but at the expense of whom? As they themselves agonize over their gains, the book ends on an unusually glum note. (Although one character’s interest in drinking water portends far worse to come.)

Most readers will now come to the book from the movie adaptation, and so it’s noteworthy to point out that much of the book is, indeed, quite faithful to the details of the book. That “zero!” hand gesture at a Las Vegas conference, followed by “a call from my wife”? It happened. That stripper with five houses? It happened (in Vegas rather than Florida, but still). While the film does a magnificent job at adapting the specifics of the book into a cinematic narrative, adding extra layers of visual irony along the way, it remains surprisingly faithful to its material, which is remarkable given the complexity and seriousness of the topic and Hollywood’s tendency to dumb down as many things as it can. Strong source material can be lauded for inspiring strong adaptations, and that’s what we have here.

The Big Short is, in other words, a really good book. It’s infuriating, enlightening, funny and gripping at once. The ironic tone is almost the only sane response to an insane situation … and it back up a powerful message that greed is powerful enough that it snares the smart and the dumb alike. No greater ingenuity exists than what is required to convince ourselves of our righteousness.

The Martian, Andy Weir

Crown, 2014, 384 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 978-0804139021

We all read fiction for our own purposes, and we should be careful in deriding others for what they like. It’s my pet theory that specific subgenres exist because they scratch personal itches that are as idiosyncratic as they can be, but can be shared widely. I’m an avid reader of so-called “engineering fiction” (stories in which increasingly complex problems are solved in quasi-procedural fashion, with plenty of details) because problem-solving is something I enjoy, and fictionalized scenarios of problem solving can be compelling in and of themselves, notwithstanding the most conventional aspects of fiction such as plotting, characterization or prose style. Engineering fiction does get a lot of flack because, improperly handled, it can read like a thinly disguised instruction manual. But when it works, it’s enthralling in a way that other kinds of fiction can’t achieve.

And that brings us to Andy Weir’s The Martian, a novel I’ve been waiting to read for a long time. I first became interested in the book when it started getting considerable attention as a self-published success, leading to it being snapped up by Crown. As much as I acknowledge Sturgeon’s Law as it applies to self-published fiction, I also believe that the traditional boundaries between traditional and DIY publishing are eroding, and that especially goes for specialized genre fiction. Weir’s The Martian, coming from nowhere but getting great reviews from my corner of the fiction world, seemed like a can’t-miss demonstration of what could become the new normal between self-publication and big-publisher validation. Alas, a big-screen adaptation started shooting before I could get to the novel, making it fall into my “don’t read the book before seeing the movie” eclipse zone. Cue the wait until the film was released on home video…

It took five days from The Martian’s video release to the time I watched the film. It barely took one more day after seeing the film until I finished the novel.

The film is one of those best-case scenario that acts as the novel’s best advertisement: One of Ridley Scott’s best movies in years, it’s a great movie by itself (that montage set to David Bowie’s Starman…) but also a remarkably faithful adaptation that follows the beats of the novel and does so in splendidly entertaining fashion despite very technical material.

My reasoning in waiting after the movie before reading the novel is that I’m usually disappointed when I go from novel to its movie adaptation in rapid succession: The movie usually simplifies the details that give life to the novel, condenses characters, hammers everything into the usual three-act structure and goes for speed and simplicity. Going from film to novel fixes images that can be used to read the novel more easily, expands on hastily summarized plot points, adds more complexity to character motivations and generally provide an expansion of the film. This is particularly apt for The Martian: There were a few plot holes in the film, and I quickly dove into the novel hoping that they were a case of excessive adaptation condensation issue. I was right: Weir has really thought of everything, and a number of the film’s nagging inconsistencies were usually resolved by a few lines in the novel. Otherwise, discussing the novel is a lot like discussing the film, so closely do they align in terms of tone, twists and turns, characters and overall impact. (I do like that the film adds a welcome coda showing what happened a while later—it helps a lot in ensuring an upbeat ending.)

But even after the blockbuster success of its movie adaptation, Andy Weir’s The Martian remains a successful novel on its own. It reads exceptionally well: Weir’s no-nonsense prose isn’t particularly polished, but it’s efficient. Much of the story is narrated by its smart and sarcastic stranded-astronaut protagonist, trying to lift his own spirits after being abandoned on Mars with months to go before any possible rescue. Much of the novel is a series of problem-solving exercises in ensuring his survival against impossible odds. Ensuring his safety from the elements, growing potatoes for food, establishing communications with Earth, planning his escape… Weir dives deep into the technical details of his protagonist’s plight, but never forgets to vulgarize it effectively. While the deck is stacked in favour of the protagonist with future technology that doesn’t exist now, it remains credible throughout and few readers won’t be convinced by the novel.

It also struck me as a particularly fine example of pure hard science fiction, both in execution and intent. From a stylistic standpoint, The Martian doesn’t aspire to greatness: the prose is flat and straightforward with few refinements, but it doesn’t need them. As in the purest traditional Science Fiction, the prose is meant to be a vehicle for the story, which is itself an excuse for the thrills that come from cheating the universe out of its indifference to human life. Hard-SF in the Campbellian tradition is very much about problem-solving as the survival box around the character gets smaller and smaller. The Martian faithfully follows this ethos to its triumphant conclusion and as such presents a terrific affirmation that this strain of traditional SF still has some life into it. It’s both modern (in tone) and classic (in plotting) at the same time, and the result is pure joy to read.

Naturally, I can’t promise the same reading experience to everyone. But The Martian plays into my sandbox of techno-scientific knowledge, pop-culture irreverence, straight-ahead plotting, unobtrusive style and can-do characters. Fiction is a big house, and we should all be able to find Our Thing in it—right now, The Martian is as close to a novel tailored for my tastes than I can think of.

[February 2016: On a more personal note, I’ll highlight that this is the first book review I’ve written in more than a year spent idling, so stoked was I to discuss this book. Thanks, Andy Weir!]

Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2015, 480 pages, C$29.00 hc, ISBN 978-0316098106

(This review contains spoilers, because spoilers are the point of this review)

As I write this, Science Fiction fandom is experiencing another one of its crises that come to redefine it. Reactionary forces are trying to take over the genre’s top award, spinning furious theories of vote rigging and pernicious influence from social justice whatevers. The issue claims to be about ethics in SF journalism whether Science Fiction’s overall aesthetics have been moved too far away from its core audience and if it was about that topic then we’d have a serious argument. (I may be progressive in my politics, but I’m quite old-fashioned in the kind of SF I like.)  As it turns out, however, the current debate about ethics in SF awards nominations is an acute symptom of a larger neo-reactionary movement. Last year it was videogames; this year is about SF awards; next year will almost certainly be a metastasizing of the tendency into American national politics given the presidential election.

In this context, the vigorous debate surrounding Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is almost predictable given the nature of what Robinson tries to do with his novel: question some of the core assumptions of classical Science Fiction. For SF has always taken at face value that humanity is meant to conquer the universe. Thousands of years in the future, humanity will, of course, have colonized other star systems, an expansion that can only be stopped by the heat death of the universe—and we’ll work on that at some point.

For a while, Robinson seems to follow into familiar paths. The story begins aboard a generation ship sent to colonize a nearby star. It’s a clever ship, with dozens of ecosystems contained in large separate compartments. Our hero is a young girl who defies social more to travel across the entire ship, trying to follow in the footsteps of her formidable mother. For a while, all the way up to the descent on the new planet, Aurora seems almost depressingly familiar—an old-hat SF story told using the latest technological vocabulary.

But then Something Happens. Something that doesn’t usually happens in SF stories. People fall sick. The planet rejects humanity. Survivors are asked to contemplate the unthinkable: Head back home.

Some do. Some don’t. Our heroine is among those who choose to come back, knowing that she probably won’t live to the arrival back to Earth. And as the story follows her, we never hear again about those who chose to try again on the new planet.

Aurora gets weirder after that. The return home is simplified by the convenient development of cryogenic technology that can be used by the returning colonists. Much of the book’s second half is a thrilling game of celestial pinball in which Robinson shows, calculations included, how to slow down from a trip at a significant fraction of light speed. Then the novel’s final section deals with the non-enthusiastic reception that the failed colonists get upon returning to their so-called “home”. Ultimately, our protagonist finds some measure of self-peace by getting closer to nature, earth and the everlasting ocean.

Some of this is very familiar to Robinson fans. The almost existentialist need to commune with nature has been an integral part of Robinson’s fiction since, well, forever (see elements of his Three California Trilogy, especially the utopian Pacific’s Edge; see elements of his Mars trilogy, seeking to make Mars more Earth-like; see his Climate change trilogy, stating how unwise it is to disturb the natural equilibrium; see the mysterious illness that affects those who don’t take sabbaticals on Earth in 2312, which is semi-linked to Aurora). His willingness to question the assumptions of SF have never been too far from his fiction, even when he writes from within the genre’s core.

At the same time, it almost feels audacious to star poking at one of the core tenets of SF. What if, indeed, stock humans were simply unsuitable to space colonization? Wouldn’t it make sense for us to be so closely part of Earth’s ecosystem to being unable to function anywhere else? For a genre that prides itself on asking the tough questions, SF needs a good shake once in a while. And if this upsets some of the reactionary readers, well … what are you doing reading the stuff?

This isn’t to say that I’m completely satisfied with Aurora. It wouldn’t be a Robinson SF novel without at least one or two big blunders, and even casually reading the book raised a few questions that were never answered. There’s the curious survival of a guy stuck in a separate compartment that mystifies me as the rest of the group starves in a much larger compartment. I’m not convinced that biomes with wilderness are sustainable in a starship. I hope that the Oberth Maneuver calculations in the second half of the book are exact, but I remain skeptical. Elsewhere on the web, this overview of Aurora’s science problems is interesting.

But technical details aside, I really do admire Robinson for seriously tacking one of the sacred cows of Science Fiction, and doing it in a way that’s not dismissive. (It would have been easy to make a similar point in a short story, but an entire novel—that takes dedication.)  I quite enjoyed the usual games that Robinson plays with the prose—in this case, blending the story with the ship’s internal narrative. Aurora is quite a book, frustrating and exhilarating and mind-expanding at once. Opponents take note: It is not the description of a certain future, nor an attack on your identity as a SF reader … it is a thought experiment taken far along, and a supplemental opinion to integrate in your view of the world. There’s no need to get angry about it. If I was still in the habit of making Hugo nominations, I’d put it on my ballot.

The Annihilation Score, Charles Stross

Ace, 2015, 416 pages, 34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0425281178

There’s a notion of a quote rummaging around my brain, something along the lines of “in difficult times, you will recognize your true allegiances”. Although that’s far too dramatic for what I’m trying to get across: I haven’t been reading a lot these days, displaying an uncommon ability to tell myself, “Oh, this book can wait until I have more time”. Except for any new Charles Stross book, which I end up ordering almost on the day it’s available. So it is that I practically haven’t read any fiction in a while, but I had Stross’s latest novel in my hand a mere four days after its North American publication.

But then again, I’ve already written about how Stross’ The Laundry Files is my favourite ongoing series. Blending humour, horror, technical references and a wry understanding of contemporary fiction, it’s a series made for a very particular set of readers, but a set of which I am part. It’s also a series that keeps evolving. The first volume wasn’t meant to lead to a series, and the first four volumes had very different intentions (and methods) from the latter ones. But here we are now, with The Annihilation Score, sixth novel in a cycle that may or may not stop at the ninth instalment.

A few things are different in this volume. For the first time, the story isn’t narrated by “Bob Howard”: As anticipated by a few previous volumes in which the story escaped Bob’s narration to feature other perspectives, and finalized by Bob’s ascension to a high-level Laundry position, this new novel is narrated by none other than Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, Bob’s now-estranged wife following the dramatic conclusion of the previous volume.

Mo is not Bob (even though Bob’s technical patois and sense of humour has clearly influenced her narration) and it shows: Much of the book is spent seeing her trying to hold it together as she must deal with simultaneous crises. Not only does she have to deal with the fallout of her decision to separate from Bob, but the United Kingdom has to face the appearance of super-powered individuals in the build-up to Case Nightmare Green. She’s stuck trying to coordinate a government response while, oh yes, keeping demons both literal and figurative at bay. She doesn’t entirely succeed, especially when she also ends up developing superpowers of his own.

As with most Stross books, the joy of the novel is in seeing a different take on familiar topics. Eschewing super-heroic conventions, Stross does his damnedest to figure out how a nominally competent government would react to the appearance of superheroes. How to integrate them in law, procedures and government operations. How to combine the British ideal of policing by consent to the power fantasies of supernatural powers. For those Laundry Files fans reading from within Westminster bureaucracies, there’s some glee in seeing how Stross imagines setting up a new public service department from scratch, down to making sure the furniture is delivered and installed.

If you’re reading to keep up with the increasingly complex cast of character, The Annihilation Score has a heck of a payoff in seeing Bob’s girlfriends team up to fight evil. It also provides a different (and far scarier) perspective on Bob himself—it’s becoming clear that Bob isn’t quite who he used to be, and that the way he has portrayed himself in the past few novels is a mask trying to pretend that he’s the same likable tech guy of the first three books. The Laundry universe expands to accommodate everything coming out of Stross’s idea factory, and the result still hangs together decently.

In many ways, The Annihilation Score is a test for readers of the series—is the series about Bob or The Laundry itself? Is Bob still a hero? Is the series designed for comfort reading, or for a few upsetting shocks along the way? It’s not the same kind of novel that the first volume in the series was. Fortunately, Stross trains his readers well—over time, the probability of nuclear annihilation in Stross series approaches 100%, and the series has shifted gears so many times by now that The Annihilation Score feels like a natural extension of the series. Even as I have dramatically curtailed my fiction buying habit, one certitude remains—I’m ordering the next Laundry File novel the week it comes out.

Straight Flush, Ben Mezrich

William Morrow, 2013, 304 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-00622400

I picked up Ben Mezrich’s Straight Flush in a somewhat desperate attempt to reboot my reading. Due to various factors, my reading regimen has dwindled to almost nothing in the past few years. With a young child at home and various things to do around the house, my free time is limited and these days I long more for the passivity of movie-watching than for the effort of reading.

So, I thought, why not go back to a known quantity? When you pick up a Ben Mezrich book, you know what to expect: A heavily fictionalized account of real events, usually involving bright young men, halfway-legal schemes and massive amount of money. Our heroes are usually stuck between organized crime and police authorities, spend a lot of time around drugs, cars and women, and see the light at the end of the ride. Mezrich writes fantasy fiction for young men obsessed with status, riches and being cleverer than everyone else. I may not always like Mezrich’s book, but I can usually read them quickly and be reasonably entertained by the result.

Straight Flush did not disappoint me in that it’s almost exactly a pure Mezrich book. It tells the story of the frat-boys who founded an online casino in Central America, raking in the money until the U.S. government got wise and decided to criminalize their operations. There’s more to it, of course: the cutthroat competition between the casino start-ups, hints of cheating scandals, what it feels like to be hunted down by the U.S. government, and the sunny Costa Rican setting. If this is familiar to you, it’s either because this story made headlines circa 2010, or you’ve seen the 2014 film Runner Runner, which tackled the same subject in an even more fictionalized fashion.

But what I didn’t expect is how I would quickly sour on the people depicted in Straight Flush, or how even I (completely ignorant of the world of online Poker) would find fault with Mezrich’s attempts to exonerate the actions of his subjects. In keeping with his other books, Mezrich’s standard tone is one of barely repressed admiration for his characters. Since they made a lot of money, aren’t they smart? Aren’t they allowed a few exceptions to the rules given how clever they are? Aren’t haters just hating when they criticize them? Except no. They lucked out, exploited a legal loophole and then got caught with their pants down when the U.S. government finally passed down the law. Mezrich may try to excuse the behaviour of his subjects, but he doesn’t create a lot of sympathy for them.

It gets much, much worse when he tackles the issue of cheating at his heroes’ online casino. Worse yet: he tries to have it both ways, first by ending a chapter on the stunning revelation that an address associated with the cheating belongs to one of the casino insiders … then picks up in the next chapter by casually explaining that it was an unauthorized access to the system (by, what, a janitor?) that was the real explanation for the cheating. Even as a know-nothing in this field, that struck me as exceptionally suspicious. Then I checked other online sources commenting on the book and got eyefuls of savage criticism (“a gigantic literary fraud!” reads the most informative of them) against the book. If you go down that rabbit hole, be warned: The book comes out shredded once some of the most virulent reviewers are done with it. (Hilariously enough, most of the harshest Amazon reviews were posted within the span of a week or two, a month after the book’s release.)

I’ll be kinder, but not by much: In the end, Straight Flush reminded me not so much of Mezrich’s strengths, but his weaknesses in trying to spin entertaining docu-fiction out of shady stories. He ends up overcompensating by convincing himself that his sources are misunderstood heroes rather than possible criminals. He gilds the truth with some much drama that everything becomes even less believable. He creates conversations that can’t happen and so obviously fudges the chronology that even a cursory Wikipedia check can prove him wrong. If you’re on the more mature side, there’s something increasingly grating about Mezrich’s bad-geeks-gone-wild shtick that is nearing its expiration date. As much as I wanted to revisit the joy of reading with this book, I ended up revisiting the joys of writing a bad review. Eh, I’ll take it.

What Makes this Book so Great, Jo Walton

Tor, 2014, 448 pages, $C31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0765331939

What Makes this Book so Great, by Jo Walton, isn’t much more than a collection of short pieces first published on The common unifying theme to the series is that Walton isn’t trying to review new material as much as she’s re-reading books, forgoing an initial assessment to delve a bit more deeply into the qualities of the book being discussed. It’s a selection of pieces, with minimal visible editing—meaning that, unlike some other blog-to-book efforts offering selection, editing and contextualization, it doesn’t offer much more than what’s online (and arguably less, as you miss out on the blog comments, many of whom are mentioned in latter comments). It does, however, come with a new introduction, which explains why it’s worth re-reading books and is convincing enough to make you reconsider any previous stance of reading versus rereading.

What makes this book so great is, indeed, the passion for reading that Walton brings to her subject. While she approaches the book she rereads with initial sympathy, this doesn’t mean that she will let anything pass: She effortlessly logs significant complaints against major books, highlight flaws that may go unnoticed and grudgingly recognizes when he earlier self may have erred upon first read. Conversely, her enthusiasm about some books is contagious, and may populate your list of books to add to your reading list.

What Makes this Book so Great has a few highlights to offer. I was impressed by the book-by-book reread of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series (with which I’m familiar and could nod along) and Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos series (with which I wasn’t, and was almost convinced to pick up later). Individual essays worth reading include a discussion on the suck fairy, and so on. Throughout, Walton displays the omnivorous energy of a reader steeped deep into genre fiction, casually tossing off references that a small but dedicated number of readers will best appreciate. This isn’t a book for the casual crowd: it’s a book for those who have read SF since their teenage years and can talk knowledgeably about its various facets.

What makes this book so great is, in large part, because it (generally) replicates the typical convention experience of chatting with a highly knowledgeable genre reader or (specifically) hanging out with Jo Walton. As readers of these reviews know, I’m lucky to call Jo an acquaintance, and this book is what I mean when I say that Jo is usually the most interesting person in the room. Read it, and you’ll understand what great fun it is to discuss genre fiction with her. As much as I like Jo’s fiction, this is probably the book that best exemplifies who she is, with her quirks and passions and irrational dislikes and formidable insight. You can’t always go to a convention with Jo, but you can always grab this book and read it, which is good enough by itself.

What Makes this Book so Great may not be perfect: it’s often scattershot, idiosyncratic and makes reference to online material that requires readers to have internet access. Its pieces will obviously be of varying interest, depending on what books you have already read. But it’s a heck of a present for genre readers who are reasonably familiar with genre fiction from the 1950s to the early twenty-first century: It’s a portrait of a dedicated reason, a keen analyst and a generous fan. While I’m not convinced it has a readership outside the core SF&F genre crowd, it is (much like her Hugo-Award-winning novel Among Other) keenly targeted at this group. Well worth picking up, even if the material is already online.

Reamde, Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, 2011, 1056 pages, US$35.00 hc, March 2015

If I’m to remember anything about Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, it’s going to be that this is the book that turned me off reading fiction for nearly a year.

Let me explain.

I’m writing this review roughly a year after reading Reamde. I had the best intentions of writing a review shortly after reading the book, but life happened. Now that I have a few spare moments to go through my review backlog, what’s become obvious to me is that in the months since I’ve read Reamde, I’ve read only two novels, and one of them was a beta-read for a friend. (The other? Andy Weir’s The Martian, which gave me motivation to read and review again.)

With a lead-up like this, you’d be justified to expect a scathing denunciation of Reamde as something along the lines of the end of fiction as we know it, an affront to genre fiction, or a reader-killer. Otherwise, how else to justify how someone like me, who could reliably knock off 200–300 books per year, spent the twelve months post-Reamde barely scraping by reading half a dozen books?

The answer is wholly external to Reamde, of course. A child. A wife. A house. A job. A renewed interest in movies accompanied by a checkbox-ticking intent to catch up on those must-see films. It’s easy to form a habit in which reading is relegated to a distant runner-up position once everything else has been settled. Except, of course, that nothing is ever settled.

Still, I’m not entirely absolving Reamde. Because, more than once during the time I spent reading it, I caught myself thinking “that’s it, after this novel I can take a break”. At 1192 pages, this isn’t just a novel: it’s a trilogy contained between two covers, a modern epic published as a single unit.

Or it would be if it actually had something to say.

Because while The Lord of the Rings in its uncut director’s form runs for nine hours and change, that’s still less than an average season of your usual TV network show. (A single season of Elementary, to name one of the rare shows that I watch, will take you roughly 17 hours from beginning to end.)  But take a look at the overall story and tell me if the TV show season is denser with material than the movie trilogy. Of course it isn’t. There are a lot character-building moment and scene-to-scene material in TV shows, but the overall plot movement can be glacial. So it is with Reamde’s pacing and overall content, which expands to 1192 pages thanks to intricate exposition and a damnable absence of editing, but doesn’t quite amount to much more than a TV series in the end.

It starts semi-promisingly near Seattle, as a young man sees the content of his laptop encrypted and locked by a nasty piece of ransomware. Unfortunately for him, what’s on the laptop is of crucial interest to a branch of the Russian mob, and they don’t play around. Before long (actually, no, after long), they kill the young man, kidnap his girlfriend (who’s the real protagonist of the story) and jump on a plane to China, where they hope to be able to identify and inflict a lot of pain to the developers of the ransomware. This is all taking place on the periphery of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game, the details of which are explained in fastidious detail along the way.

By the time a normal novel would have had the time to wrap up at the 350th page or so, Reamde is not only just getting started, but pulls off an amazing coincidence that either breaks the novel or makes it. Because, you see, staying right next door to the ransomware developers is the world’s most hunted terrorist. As a confrontation goes wrong and an entire building blows up, that mastermind terrorist kidnaps our heroine and starts hatching a scheme to go back to Canada and sneak into the United States for his expected nefarious purposes. The rest of the novel is pretty much exactly that, with our heroine’s uncle (founder of the MMPORG) stepping in as a secondary hero. It’s a good thing that he also happens to own a vast resort, and has a past as a frontier-crossing drug-runner.

If your suspension of disbelief snapped somewhere during the preceding paragraph, then welcome to the world of the novel’s readers, whose sensibilities are somewhat blunted by the fact that it takes hundreds of pages of procedural detail before those elements are gradually revealed. Neal Stephenson writes long, as we know (most of his last few novels are physical door-stoppers, and his Baroque Cycle trilogy clocks in at a staggering 3300 pages) but with Reamde, his worst tendencies have exceeded the boundaries of acceptable info-dumping to become actual problems. The novel’s ludicrous plotting is only exceeded by its numerous lulls in which nothing happens.

Now comes the question: Is this a bad thing? After all, I did have a reasonably good time reading Reamde, even as I was cursing its length and pacing. I’m someone who audibly delights in info-dumping and excessive exposition. I’m often amused by authors who have the guts to go against the formula of good fiction (such as, ahem, hinging an entire plot on a freak coincidence half a world away), and my past reviews have shown that even when I don’t understand half of a Stephenson novel, I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But for the weeks I spent slogging through Reamde, I was also struck by the fact that, to put it bluntly, I don’t have time for this nonsense. I’m busy right now and for the foreseeable future, and my tolerance for the excesses of fiction has been eroded to nothing. I may watch a lot of movies, but I’m doing a lot of dishes (or research, or housekeeping, or cooking) during that time. My lifestyle, in other words, is not currently compatible with a lot of written fiction.

This is not going to be eternal. I’m not metaphorically burning my library and claiming that I’m done with the whole fiction shtick. I’m just recognizing that right now, I’m not a dedicated reader. This, I’ve been told, is fairly common for parents of small children, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt and telling myself that there is a time for everything.

But it took the gruelling experience of making it to the end of Reamde to give me a good hint that I didn’t have to push myself in reading if I didn’t feel like it. Stephenson, by being so verbose and meandering, has freed me in a way, by inoculating me against guilt if I didn’t pick up a book immediately afterward. After Reamde, I felt spent; done with fiction. The next few books I picked up were chunk-sized nonfiction, easy to pick up in separate unpredictable sittings. It would take The Martian, which I really wanted to read but didn’t want to spoil before the movie, to get me going again.

So, thank you Stephenson, I guess? Some people will find Reamde useful to prop up objects, protect themselves from attackers or keep the fireplace going for an hour or two. I’m more likely to remember it, perhaps unfairly, as the novel that sent me in a fiction sabbatical.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

St. Martin, 1975 (2009 reprint), 288 pages, ISBN 978-0312536633

I have spent a good chunk of my reading time this year rereading a few Science-Fiction classics (Card, Heinlein, etc.), usually to disappointing results: Finding out that old favourites haven’t aged well since one’s teenage years is common enough that SF fans often use the expression “visited by the suck fairy” to describe how books seem to curdle on their own once reread with a contemporary (and often, more personally mature) perspective.

So it is that I’m overjoyed to report that Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War has not been perceptively visited by the suck fairy. It remains just as interesting now as when it was published forty years ago, and it has lost little of its qualities since then. (This being said, keep in mind that I was reading the 1997 “definitive” edition, notable chiefly for including a middle section that wasn’t in the version I read twenty years ago, along with a number of small fixes here and there.)

The story is familiar enough: An unwilling man is drafted in the war effort against an alien race, and (thanks to the wonders of time dilatation) ends up living through the ensuing multi-millennium war. Through his relatively contemporary perspective, readers find themselves pushed farther and farther in an equally alien future. There’s military action, romance, savvy SF devices deployed well and hard-hitting enough narration to make the novel instantly gripping, even from its classic first line (“Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”) It’s not an accident if it’s from a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat.

The lineage that The Forever War owes to an entire tradition of military Science Fiction (most notably Heinlein’s Starship Troopers) is obvious, as are its intentions to subvert some of the inherent heroism in the genre. It’s notable, for instance, that the protagonist of the book isn’t a particularly good warrior, and that his only notable feat of military prowess comes very late in the novel—until then, he accidentally survives through luck and caution.

Interestingly enough, it’s that grounded view of military service that has allowed The Forever War to survive through the decades. War, Haldeman seems to be saying, is not noble or glorious when you’re the grunt on the frontlines: it’s a scramble for survival, it’s something that separates you from your loved ones, it’s in service of other people who may not care all that much about you. The profound sense of alienation that carries through the novel was partially meant to reflect the aftermath of Vietnam for its veterans, but it still carries a potent charge today when measured against other more triumphant military-SF novels. In many ways, The Forever War is both a veteran’s novel, but one that can be readily understood, and championed, by readers without a minute of military service.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

Berkley, 1996 reprint of 1968 original, mmpb, ISBN 042503013X

So here it is; the fourth entry in my Heinlein Re-Read Project, in which I re-read his four Hugo-winning novels, roughly twenty years after first doing so.

I was really looking forward to revisiting 1966’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, largely because I remembered it so fondly.  One of SF’s classic novels, it’s a tale of lunar revolution against an oppressive Earth, augmented by then-top-notch ideas about space warfare, artificial intelligences, unusual social constructs and libertarian ideals.  It was so influential on me when I read it in the mid-nineties that I still have, somewhere in my files, an unpublished novel that takes heavy inspiration from it (along with a generous dose of Babylon 5).  As recently as a few years ago, I reiterated (in my Alternate Hugos list) that it was the best SF novel of 1966, describing it as “One of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time, augmented by the usual playful Heinlein prose.”

Twenty years later… well, I have to own up to the fact that I once wrote those words.

The big difference between now and then, as far as I’m concerned as a reader, is that I have had nearly all libertarian sympathies evacuated out of me by the real-world demonstration that libertarianism is an idiotic ideology, fit for fiction and the daydreams of those deluded that they (of course) would be the masters of a purely libertarian society.  (Meanwhile, in the real world, citizens of libertarian societies such as Somalia don’t read much SF.)  I’m also far more inclined to question the assumptions behind didactic fiction, and not quite so impressed by a mass of plausible-sounding exposition thinly disguised as lecturing narration.

So, knowing all of this, how does The Moon is a Harsh Mistress measure up for the contemporary reader?

Not as well as it once did.

Oh, I’m willing to concede that it’s still a historically important novel, one that deserved the amount of attention that it got at the time.  Published in 1966, three years before Americans even landed on the Moon, it makes not-entirely-dumb extrapolations about the colonization of the Moon, the development of artificial intelligences, possible warfare scenarios between the Moon and Earth and the development of matriarchal polygamous “line marriages” in a place where men outnumber women 2 to 1.  It’s told vividly thanks to Heinlein’s renowned knack for readable prose (even though he handicaps himself by removing articles from the narration, giving it an interesting Russian-accented flavor) and his unequalled ability to make straight-up exposition and lecturing somehow enjoyable.  Much of the first third of the novel feels like a revolution procedural, complete with ideas on how to organize effectively.

Unfortunately, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress may be a bit too smart for its own good, especially when seen from a modern perspective.  For once thing, procedurals are only as effective as our belief in their accuracy.  By now, it’s obvious how much of Heinlein’s fiction was informed by his own dogmatic beliefs; we can see him palming the cards, stacking the deck and shutting down objections by claims of authority.  It’s also unfortunate that the novel was so influential in that reacting to it now also includes reacting to its imitators: there have been countless attempts to re-tell lunar revolutions since then, making the novel a major libertarian classic –it’s a bit too easy to (unfairly) argue against libertarianism by arguing against the novel.

Nonetheless, let’s take a look at the deck-stacking.  Heinlein takes great care to portray his protagonists as unfairly oppressed by an evil colonialist Earth government.  Hearkening back to Australian history, he posits a Moon mostly colonized by prisoners, forced to cultivate grain as a main export.  Neither of those assumptions seem like a viable economic model, especially the idea of having grain (cheap to produce, more useful in bulk) as a main export rather than more profitable products best manufactured in vacuum microgravity –try selling that business plan to would-be moon colonisers and you’ll be laughed out of the room these days.  The Terran influence on the three million lunar colonists (after more than seventy-five years of colonization!) is a curious blend of uninterested custodianship, with no self-government, an implausible lack of communications between Earth and the Moon, and an exploitative economic model that makes practically no sense.  Heinlein somehow portrays this as the vicious impact of government over a libertarian society… which then revolts to become even more libertarian, although not in a social sense but only in an economic sense… wait, what, does this novel even make sense anymore?  At times, I could swear that Heinlein was using TANSTAAFL as a libertarian argument about as effectively as some teenagers shout YOLO.

So, from a modern perspective, the very foundations of the novel have credibility issues, and that’s not even beginning to climb up the ladder to the novel’s other particularities.  In one of the great plot cheats even attempted, Heinlein tries to make us believe that revolution is going to be a risky thing for the colonists… excepts that he gives them the full powers of an Artificial Intelligence that is in charge of just about anything worth anything on the moon, from shipments to communications to personnel databases.  When much of the plotting for the revolution seems to come up on a whim in-between three people and their all-powerful pet AI, we’re somehow expected to doubt that the revolution’s going to fail once they control the information network.

So: As much as I’d like to remember The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as “one of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time”, a re-read with a few more years’ hindsight reveals a far more flawed novel than I remembered.  The exposition is more blustering than sensible, the final act a bit more sadistic than warranted, the events obviously manipulated according to the author’s intention to re-create a valorous American Revolution in Spaaace!  The absence of anything looking like an Internet (or, heck, anything like a free press and basic communications between the Moon and the Earth) makes the novel an irremediable historical curiosity, as the past fifty years have taken us in directions far stranger than anything Heinlein set down in his novel. To a contemporary reader, the details of the AI running things are about as quaintly charming as a description of the Arpanet’s early days – punch-cards almost included.

Still, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t compare it to the novel of its time.  Heinlein’s “strong female characters” are more informed by his lechery than actual belief in equality of agency (I’m skipping over a number of somewhat icky passages regarding the age and consent of some of the characters…), his portrayal of information technology is a creature of the mainframe world, his willful ignorance of communication networks is required for the novel to work as such, and his didactic tendencies are only a few novel away from spilling out in full cranky solipsism, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress still holds up better than its contemporaries by a significant margin.  It has scope, daring self-imposed handicaps, an accumulation of technical details and a perspective that at least tries to acknowledge an entire world. This does not ensure that it’s a novel fit to hand to any circa-2014 readers, but it does means that it will remain a historically important SF landmark.

Still, I emerge from this re-read considerably less enthusiastic about this novel than I did beforehand.  Some of the ideas still hold their own, but most of the others have become historical curios.  The political intent of the novel is intrusive enough to alter the plot in ways that just seem dumb to anyone who doesn’t agree.  And for a novel that left such a good impression years later, I was a bit surprised to find out that it leaves much to be desired as sheer story: Much of the first two-third is exposition upon exposition about an internal revolt whose outcome is practically assured by the aces in the rebels’ pockets, while the rest is told in a surprisingly unengaged fashion.  That few imitators have managed to be as good as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is no assurance that a sufficiently-talented author could improve upon it.  But, please, let’s leave the libertarianism out of it, or at least explore it in a way that doesn’t make any politically-savvy reader want to bang their heads against the nearest wall.

* * *

This may as well be the best place to draw a few hasty conclusions about my four-book twentieth-reading-anniversary tour of Heinlein’s Hugo-Winning novels.

I started out with the best of intentions.  Mocking Heinlein has become a bit of an easy target in today’s online fandom, as older readers tssk-tssk younger ones for not knowing Heinlein, and younger ones aw-c’mon their elders by demonstrating that RAH doesn’t hold up as well as memories suggest.  My self-taught SF education was directly inspired by the old-school, and I have read enough disingenuous cheap-shot condemnations of classic SF novels to last me for a while.  I started the re-read project after making my way through a Heinlein biography, and was partially motivated to do so out of yearning for the same flash of excitement that accompanied most of my early Heinlein experiences.

Alas, one never steps into the same river twice, and so my reading today is equally informed by the criticism that have been aimed at Heinlein than by the books themselves.  Even being sympathetic to the idea of Heinlein’s novel as historically-important references, inside and outside the SF genre, wasn’t enough to make me ignore the growing issues in considering those books today.  Yes, Heinlein wrote better female characters than most other SF writers of the time.  Today, that’s nowhere near an excuse for how they read on the page.  Sure, Heinlein’s grasp of politics resulted in unusually complex ideas on the nature of self-determination and power.  But today’s models are a bit more complex, and the current perception of Heinlein has to belabour against the imitators and fans that have dumbed down many of his more nuanced ideas.  (Not that Heinlein, at times, was immune to the exasperating tendency of claiming that there were simple solutions to every complex problems –as long as they were his!)  No one is going to take away Heinlein’s importance in the development of the genre’s history, but it’s probably time to acknowledge (putting it bluntly) that he is dead, that his influence is waning and that soon enough, he will be read for historical purposes far more than straight-up entertainment.  (As it happens to nearly all authors.  That we’re still talking about Heinlein 25+ years after his death is a pretty good achievement in itself.)

As for the four novels themselves, I note that my initial ranking of them would have been something along the lines of Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Double Star and (significantly lower) Stranger in a Strange Land.  (If you want to rank these novels by cultural influence, absent any personal preference, then the order still remains Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and (significantly lower) Double Star.)  After a re-read, the only change in my order of preference would probably to put Double Star first (surprisingly enough), with the other three novels in the same order.  Double Star has aged pretty well, largely because it’s an interesting story well-told (the other books aren’t as strong in terms of story, and suffer from a lot of excess lecturing) and its universe is now so far away from accepted reality that it’s now charmingly quaint and reflective of the SF of the time.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is probably the book that has suffered the most from a re-read: Like Starship Troopers, I find it more fun to argue against, but while Starship Troopers still had some wit and plausible deniability about its most outlandish statements of opinion-as-fact, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress seems crankier, embittered and easier to dismiss.

It would be dishonest for me not to acknowledge, despite my misgivings about Heinlein’s novel as read today, that I do admire this quartet of novel, as much for their influence than for their willingness to stake out ideological positions that initially seem so starkly at odd with each other.  That the same man would be able to write novels that would be so respected by groups so different (hippies, soldiers, libertarians, with a side-order of parliamentary monarchy for Double Star) is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  Nothing like it will ever be achieved again.

I may, for fun, try re-reading those four novels again in twenty years.  Perhaps I’ll arrive at a more nuanced opinion then, perhaps I’ll be even more dismissive of their failings than I was in 2014.  Perhaps social conventions will evolve closer or farther away from those novels.  I don’t know. That’s what makes the prospect of re-visiting them again so exciting.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

Putnam, 1991 expanded reedition of 1961 original, 489 pages

When I took on my Heinlein re-read project (all of his four Hugo-winning novels), the one I was dreading most was Stranger in a Strange Land, largely because I didn’t like it all that much when I first read it twenty years ago.  I saw it then as pointless, dull and largely unmemorable (save for the line “You’re four of the six most popular writers alive today.”)  Twenty years later, a re-visit shows that… I’m still not that far off from my initial assessment.

(Before going any further, I should state that the only easily-accessible version of the novel I had at hand was a Book Club copy of the “uncut” 220,000-words 1991 edition, not the 160,000-words 1961 original one.  Since that was also the version I read twenty years ago, I felt that I was comparing apples-to-apples in terms of revisiting my own experience of the novel.  While I’ll admit that this “uncut” version is closer to what Heinlein had in mind when writing the novel, it is not necessarily what original readers experienced in 1961.  So while I think that most of my complaints about the novel are valid no matter the version, keep this piece of trivia in mind when I rant, later on, about the novel’s interminable digressions.)

It’s easy to take pot-shots at Stranger in a Strange Land largely because its place in SF genre history is so secure.  Not only was it a commercial and critical success in the SF genre upon publication (it sold widely and won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel), but it’s one of the very few genre-SF novels to have broken through the mainstream in a significant way, even though by “mainstream” we here mean “sixties counterculture”.  With a plot that concerned itself with the establishment of a new religion and open-sharing communities, the book became a bible for the hippie movement, became (unfairly) associated with notables such as Charles Manson and even figures in the lyrics of Billy Joel’s retro-anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, rhyming with “Russians in Afghanistan”.  It remains Heinlein’s best-known and reportedly best-selling novel, and has been deeply influential for a significant number of Baby-Boomers.

This being said, it definitely remains a book of the early-sixties.  It has a charming retro-futurist quality borrowing both from perennial future markers and conceptual limitations of the time, mixing flying cars, trips to Mars, film video technology, psi powers, sentient Martians and post-World-War-III world government.  Much of the book is dated and quaint by today’s standards, especially its criticism of organized religion and treatment of female characters.  As usual while discussing Heinlein’s fiction, “pretty good for that time” does not translate into “acceptable by today’s standards.”  For all of their feistiness, the female characters don’t have much agency beyond proudly choosing to serve the nearest male authority figure, while Heinlein’s portrait of the horrors of a church blending fake piousness with cynical exploitation seems almost charmingly naïve fifty years and many televangelists later.

My own issues with the novel have more to do with its plot, or rather its somewhat simplistic one.  Here a human orphan raised on Mars comes to Earth after being rescued by a follow-up expedition, bringing back extreme naiveté along with psi powers made possible by the Martian educational system.  He can make things disappear at will, can discorporate for a while, possesses superhuman intelligence and, after being socialized with humans, easily becomes a cult leader.  Much of the novel is spent witnessing his laborious education, through endless speeches usually involving Heinlein stand-in Jubal Harshaw, a cranky old man who remains the unassailable Voice of Reason throughout the novel.  There is a big break in action midway through that makes the novel even less enjoyable.

Still, it’s easy to understand Stranger in a Strange Land‘s appeal to the counter-culture of the sixties, especially when the novel aims at staid conventional thinking and starts promoting free loving individualism.  No wonder it became a foundational text for much of the late-sixties hippie communes.  Ironically, it’s this deeply influential quality that makes Stranger in a Strange Land feel like such a dated period piece: It suggests something that has been tried and shown to fail such a long time ago that it seems like a relic of another time.  (Heinlein and his apologists will rightfully point out that Heinlein wasn’t suggesting answers as much as he was raising questions about society at the time; in this light the novel was a success in that it anticipated where society was headed far more accurately than other novels of the time.  Alas, the only reward for correctly anticipating the future in SF is feeling ordinary when the future does arrive as expected.)

Is it worth a read today?  It definitely is for SF genre historians, and sixties enthusiasts.  As for other readers… it depends on how much you enjoy lectures by a cranky old guy who thinks he’s seen everything.  Heinlein’s two biggest assets as a writer were his confidence and his gift for easy prose.  Taken together without much interference by the demands of characterisation, you end up with Stranger in a Strange Land‘s passages starring the wit and wisdom of “Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, neo-pessimist philosopher, devout agnostic, professional clown, amateur subversive, and parasite by choice.”  Harshaw is extraordinarily fun to read even as he (wrongly) expounds and pontificates and lectures at length.  He’s an idealized figure of how Heinlein wanted to be perceived and what some of his readers wanted to become.  As such, he’s interesting in the same ways any cranky eccentric relatives can be… in small doses.  Heinlein, as canny as he could be, was writing from a less complicated time and from our perspective, much of Stranger in a Strange Land has the interesting quality of being cynical and naïve at once.

In tallying up my reaction to Stranger in a Strange Land, the most telling detail is that the book took me six weeks to finish.  My time when I was guaranteed some reading time every day are gone, so I’d pick it up every so often out of duty, never feeling any urgency to tear through vast swatches of it as I did in reading Double Star or Starship Troopers.  Much of it (including the Harshaw lectures) was instantly forgotten, and I felt some impatience once the action moved away from the Harshaw compound.  It is a major novel in the history of the Science Fiction genre, but it remains a novel of its time.  I didn’t like it much at the time, and I still don’t like it much now.