2011 Year In Books

By April 20, 2012 11:08PM [link]

I'm trying to read and write more, and what better way to do both than to write about what I'm reading? I'll try running through all the books I read last year in one big post.

Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This was a good book. I've been on an Antarctica kick ever since discovering the blog (now abandoned) of a scientist who was then working in the Dry Valleys near McMurdo, so this was a natural book for me to read. It's a fictional story told in more-or-less present day narrated by three main characters: one a senator's aide, one a mountaineer guide, and one a member of the support staff that keeps the facilities running (first at McMurdo station with the scientists and then with an oil exploration outfit). They have adventures and their stories become intertwined. The author had spent some time in the continent and it shows through the descriptions of places and events. There's even a bit of history worked in -- he tells some of the stories of the first explorers to the continent interwoven with the modern day events.

Antarctica is a fascinating continent. I would never actually go there, what with the expense and the distance and the impracticality of it all. In another life, I can dream of being one of the scientists who works there for a few seasons. In many ways it seems like a different world, another planet.

Book is recommended for anyone who likes Antarctica, preservation of natural resources, or adventure stories.

Straight Man, by Richard Russo.

I first read a couple pages from this book at the Friday Harbor House in the San Juan islands years ago, and was intrigued enough to look up the author again. Returning from that trip, I read (and enjoyed) Empire Falls and thought I would finally read this book too.

The main character is a disillusioned and cynical English professor at a small college having various minor and not-so-minor problems in his middle-aged life. Parts of it were very funny. The whole thing was a pleasure to read. The characters were outstanding -- Richard Russo has a knack for making believable life-like characters and making their stories interesting. It's certainly well written, though I unfortunately didn't enjoy this book as much as I would have hoped. The main character was in the end just too depressing.

Merchant Princes series, by Charles Stross

This is a series of 6 books (at the time of this writing). I found them because I had previously happened upon Stross's writings online about the economics and business decisions of the publishing industry, especially as it adapts to e-book formats. I thought he was a well-informed person and a good writer so I would try one of his books. I started with "The Family Trade", which was a captivating and fast-paced book and soon I was reading the entire series.

In any case, the books are good. They're fast-paced and (with the exception of much of book three) exciting and full of action. The setting is great (though I would have liked to see it filled out a little more, perhaps as a longer series.) The plots are entertaining. Stross does a great job of pacing the action and ending on cliffhangers.

Stross said on his blog that he initially intended it to be a much longer series. He initially delivered books one and two together as a single manuscript, the first in a planned 4-6? book series of longer books. But the publishing company told him that only A-list authors get to have books longer than 400-odd pages as the printing cost is so much higher and the risk is too great unless it's a well-known author guaranteed to sell a zillion copies. So he had to break his 600 page book into two (which became the first two books of the series) and scale back the rest of the series as well. It's too bad -- the settings and characters have enough potential that I would have happily read twice as much material.

Some nits: I realize this was written by a European during the George W. Bush years, so the real-life foreign policy criticism he's making is valid, but the behavior in the story of the US government in book six was over the top (and the whole ending came too quickly to be believable). Some plot points are too convenient, though that may have been due to necessity due to the shortened books. Meeting Erasmus for the first time. The revolution in New Britain happening right then. The DEA agent just happened to be Miriam's old boyfriend, etc. Iris/Patricia seemed not very motherly early on.

All in all though, it was an enjoyable series -- not high literature but certainly entertaining and a fun story. Much better than than what you get on TV.

I would very much like to see the story carried forward -- what happens to them setting up in New Britian. Do they cast off the old ranks and feudal ways and form an egalitarian society patterned after modern American culture? How do they introduce new technology to New Britian and what does it do to that society (and the rest of the world in that universe.) This has already included some spoilers and I won't include any more by asking more questions about the future lives of the characters, but there is more material here if Stross wants to keep writing in these Universes. He has indicated on his blog that he might skip a generation and pick up the story again, maybe we'll get to see.

Accelerando, by Charles Stross

I read this book because I had enjoyed The Merchant Princes series and enjoy Stross's writings online. This book was a disappointment, though. It had some good ideas, and some plot elements were interesting, but overall I thought it kept dragging on about too many boring things to make it worth reading.

The good: speculation about what A.I. civilizations look like and how they would interact with human civilizations. The journey to the router and then the interaction with the alien civilization(s). Speculation about copies of yourself (and indeed, the idea that the journey to the router took place in a spaceship the size of a pop can with the beings stored inside as a computer program). The small part about the colony on Saturn. The cat Anieko was clever. Some of the speculative take on what life in the future might look like was clever and thought-provoking.

The bad: the characters were all uninteresting and I didn't feel any empathy towards any of them. The bit about the limited liability companies growing into some kind of A.I. monstrosity. This was social commentary about corporations with rights, I know, but it was too much and too boring. It too often felt like (the bad aspects of) a William Gibson novel with too much made-up jargon and setting-driven stories, rather than plot or character driven. (That's probably an unfair characterization of William Gibson novels, in fairness I haven't read enough of them!)

Six Not So Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman

Well, that was a lot of fiction so it was finally time for some non-fiction.

I have "Six Easy Pieces" and this is another great set of lectures by the legendary physicist. This one focuses on relativity, which is fascinating. It made me get my UW physics book out again so I can go over the concepts in more detail. The rather long part at the beginning about vectors is less interesting (or maybe it's just that I found that part easier to remember from H.S. and college so I didn't need the lengthy treatment). But the bit about the time dilation, length contraction, mass, momentum, kinetic energy, inertial reference frames, space-time, etc was all excellent. This is a book to read every few years when you start to get rusty on the materials again.

When Red Is Black, by Qiu Xialong

I chose this book on impulse (truth be told, probably because I liked the color scheme of the cover, different than the one pictured here, and I like mystery books set in different parts of the world.) It was a decent book. Nothing special, but nonetheless a good book and one I'm glad I read.

It's about the solving of a murder case, and about the way in which a the head of a big land-development company tricks a government official to let him slide around some regulations for a new development project in Shanghai. Characters are interesting, scenery is good (though I have no idea how realistic it is.) The actual murder-mystery plot itself is fairly mundane, but that's ok with me.

I really like stories with interesting, believable, characters set in interesting places or times. The plot is almost an afterthought to the conversations the characters have with each other and the scenery. I like this for much the same reason as I liked the James Church books set in North Korea. (Though I'm not trying to compare Shanghai to Pyongyang.) I love to read mystery novels set in Asia, or Africa, or South America, or the 1850s, or on a future Moon Colony. And there's nothing special to me about mystery novels, just that it's a good excuse for a story with the given characters and setting. I actually don't get into the solving of the case, or figuring it out before the author reveals it. The mystery plot is just an excuse to get the characters and settings onto the page.

The Hunt For Red October, by Tom Clancy

I've read this book before. In college I went on a bit of a Tom Clancy kick for a little while, buying a bunch of his books at used bookstores on the Ave. My dorm roommate and I even read Red Storm Rising together, almost book-club style, and possibly one or two others as well. But it's been a while since then and I grabbed this book on a whim while running after Connor at the Library in September.

It was a good story, and Clancy is a good writer. Oftentimes it felt like a bit of US military propaganda -- the Americans and their British allies were always good and noble, and the Russian opponents were often sinister, cynical, and undermining their own best interests due to corruption. The allied technology was years ahead of the Soviet technology, and the allied crews were happy and treated right while their Soviet counterparts were lucky to get enough to eat. It also has a bit of gender-role bravado about it -- the men are men and serve their country while their wives and daughters stay home and shop or have tea. But despite that it was a fun story to read. And the descriptions of the naval events and submarine battles were interesting. To my (lay) perspective, they seemed quite realistic.

I would have liked to see a bit more dimensionality to the characters, on both sides. But I also have to remember that this was written in the early 80s, during the cold war. To some extent, it was military propaganda. Reading some articles about the book, it seems that the US Navy was happy about the book because it exaggerated the differences in technology between the two sides. They hoped some in the Soviet armed forces, or just civilians, would read the book and lose a bit of morale, or somehow think highly of their western opponents. Who knows if this was at all effective, and in any case Tom Clancy clearly wrote it as a novel intended for a western audience. But it's interesting to think about.

Bottom line, it was a fun read. (And I'm a peacenik.)

Zoe's Tale, by John Scalzi

This is a retelling of part of the story for some of his other books, which I have not read. It stood alone as an interesting story however. I grabbed it on a whim as we were leaving the library one day, never having heard of it or Scalzi's other books before.

The plot was weird and a little 1970s sci-fi big-war-with-the-aliens, but many of the characters also had a (what I'm calling) more modern lets-be-friends-with-the-people-different-from-us approach. The characters were fairly good, and the story was fun to read. Some of the writing, especially the dialog, had a distinct Buffy the Vampire Slayer feel to it. The main characters were late-teen and they did some fighting and alien interactions that reminded me of what Buffy and her gang would do.

This was a quick read, much like the Charles Stross books. The kind of book that, if you're not doing anything else, you can read in a day. As it is I read it in about a week. It was a fun story but I probably won't go out of my way to read his other books.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This was a great book. Not "personal top ten" great, but nonetheless a very good book. (And, thinking about it, maybe? No, probably not.)

Red Mars follows the activities of a future mars colonization effort. Set roughly 30-40 years in the future (maybe 50-ish years in the future given the book is I think more than 10 years old.) It focuses on human stories on the small scale, and on large geopolitical issues as well. Robinson (or at least this book) has a bit of a pessimistic outlook on the near-term future of human endeavors -- the world has fallen into the hands of large multi-national corporations who only care about their own bottom lines and their thirst for more resources and more power. But the Mars colonies (the first colonists are quickly joined by dozens of additional colonies as the story unfolds) are a welcome refuge where people care about each other and an egalitarian, post-capitalistic, society can be built. Of course the mega-corps have something to say about this and there is an eventual conflict.

The book also depicts a conflict between the "Greens" (pro-terraforming) and "Reds" (pro-leave-mars-alone). This mirrors our own environmental conflicts on Earth. And of course various inter-personal conflicts and adventures come up which make this a human story. I also really enjoyed the hard-sci-fi aspects to the story. It's clear that Robinson has spent a lot of time thinking about how a real Mars colony would work. The machinery, duties, space realities that would be involved. He is probably making a few assumptions about the conditions on Mars (like all the water that they find), and some of the later developments are a bit fanciful (tent cities!) And who knows how realistic this is -- I consider myself scientifically well versed for a lay citizen, but I'm far from a planetary scientist or any expert in this field. But overall I found the technical aspects to the story to be quite believable and especially enjoyable.

After reading this book, I can see how people describe Robinson's Antarctica (which I read earlier this year) as a very similar book to his Mars trilogy. They both have a band of people who want to create a new (better) society in a far away, difficult, largely inhospitable, place. They both feature large entities (corporations, governments, both) who want to grab resources from a new land.

Speaking of the resources: to argue with his main characters for just a minute, it does seem a bit unfair that a really small group of people who just happen to be lucky enough to end up on Mars (or in Antarctica in his other book) would be able to claim the whole place for themselves as a new nation-state. If we take his assumption that the Earth's resources are being used up, and 8 billion people have to fight over them, then is it fair that a band of people numbering likely in the thousands (or at very most small millions) would get to own the resources of an entire planet? Now I realize that this is a (mostly!) hypothetical scenario, and we can get to a far more equitable solution through better resource distribution here at home. But it is a little hard to allow a small band of people to live the good life while the rest of us suffer just because they ended up in the first few waves of colonists. (Of course, given the hardships of at least early life on Mars/Antarctica, it's maybe a bit unfair to call that "the good life" either.)

I will read the sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars.


I (as always) read a lot more fiction than non-fiction. But this year it was only 1 nonfiction book out of 13, which is low even for me. My target is 1 book a month, which I made this year, though some of my books were fairly short. I of course read many other non-book things as well. If you'd like to read one of these books, borrow it from a library or a friend, or buy it from any bookstore you like. If you choose Amazon, the cover images above are links with my affiliate tag in them and I'd love the referral. Thanks!

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