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Tue, 10 Nov 2009

October 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In October 2009 I read the following books:

1. 2 B R 0 2 B, by Kurt Vonnegut

This very short story is available for free download from Project Gutenberg. "Everything was perfectly swell. There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars. All diseases were conquered. So was old age." And yet the Utopia is utterly hideous. Once you read the two lines after those I quote, the ghastliness is obvious. And the line after that gives the rest away. Not worth reading.

2. Exhalation, by Ted Chiang

Yeah, I know, it's another short story. I'm cheating horribly in my attempt to get back on track and read four works every month. Anyway, it's great. This is what science fiction should be - an exploration both of the physical world but also of the meta-physical, mediated by technology. Technology is what every literate person in advanced societies these days is familiar with, so technology is a good substrate for great story-telling, much like in more primitive times the common substrate might have been country house parties and religion - which is why Jane Austen and her ilk's work and the Bible seem like utter crap now but were so popular back in the Dark Ages. Chiang brings out the explorer's humanity, painting him as a sympathetic being with troubles, dreams, desires, and most of all hopes. Hopeful stories are terribly rare in all of literature.

I'm pleased to see that it won the 2009 Hugo for Best Short Story. You can, at least for now, read it for free online here.

3. A Colder War, by Charles Stross

I'm still a dirty rotten cheat. This is another short story (which can also be downloaded) and is another Lovecraft crossover. And it's done superbly well. If anything, the horror of Lovecraft's Elder Ones comes across better here than in the original, perhaps because I can relate more to the setting. The utter madness of Lovecraft's mythos fits all too well into Mutually Assured Destruction.

4. Planet of the Damned, by Hary Harrison

First published in 1962, this is one of the better examples of the pulp sci-fi of its era, and is, unlike almost all its contemporaries, still in print. This is probably because, while it does have some of the stupid prejudices of its age - women can not possibly win chess tournaments; the only female character is a tiny, but sexy, wimp - they are nothing like as all-encompassing as in the lesser works of the age. And also the technologies and ecosystems are, again unlike most of its contemporaries, mostly plausible. In particular, I doubt that Harrison was aware of the "brain-washing" Cordyceps fungi, but the alien symbiote whose influence and discovery drives the plot seems to be remarkably similar. The writing and characterisation is somewhat weak - again, showing its age - but the plot is strong and inventive, making this worth reading.

5. The Secret Still: Scotland's Clandestine Whisky Makers, by Gavin Smith

The subject of illegal whisky making, its history, the economic and social conditions surrounding it, and how it was combatted by the government, has the potential to make a great book for whisky afficionados, especially when you consider how many of today's large commercial distilleries have roots in illegal distilling. But this book isn't it. It starts well, with a survey of the economic conditions and circumstances of distilling. This makes an excellent text on how having different tax rates for the same goods in different places in a single jurisdiction is Just Plain Dumb, and how arbitrary and inconsistent law encourages crime.

But that's all that's good in the book. The rest is just an incoherent collection of uncited anecdotes and well-researched and cited facts, with obvious tall tales thrown in without comment (for instance the tale of how a cripple was able to jump from his boat into that of a customs crew and smash their boat apart while the excise officers and their crew were still on board). To add insult to injury, the publisher has obviously bulked out what is still a fairly slim volume by inserting a large space between each disjointed fact or anecdote, attempting to hide that with a small image. And finally, the scholarship (which would other wise be fairly good if only the editor had managed to bash it into a coherent shape) is terribly let down by an obviously biased treatment of the illegal distillers as folk-heroes and excisemen as The Enemy, while largely ignoring the violence between distilling gangs, the poor quality of the spirit (which wasn't aged like it is today) and the effects on health of an unregulated alcohol industry having little in the way of quality control.

I can't recommend this, not even to whisky lovers.

Posted at 19:50 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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