Monday, July 21, 2014

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

It's happened before: I read a handful of books on vacation, and then never get around to writing about them.  So rather than full reviews, let's just have a little round-up.

Matt Ruff, Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997)--An extremely Pynchon-influenced (an influence which Ruff cheerfully acknowledges at several points) science fiction comedy thriller thing--pretty much the perfect vacation read.  Substantial enough that you don't feel afterwards like you haven't read anything, but never so bogged down in thematic resonance that it feels like heavy going (although, hypocritical me--sometimes I did wish it was a little more weighty in places, even if that would've obviated a lot of the point).  In 2023, humanoid servant robots are ubiquitous, and their manufacturer (Harry Gant)'s company is constantly being harassed on the high seas in slapsticky ways by a merry band of ecopirates; meanwhile, sharks and crocodiles roam the New York sewers, and Gant's ex-wife is investigating the mysterious death of a high-finance guy with the help of an allegedly hundred-eighty-one-year-old Civil War veteran and the hologrammatic consciousness of Ayn Rand in a hurricane lamp.  Credit the book for a gentle yet thorough demolishing of objectivism.  As noted, in some ways I really wanted more--it's Pynchonian style minus most of the substance--but, as also noted, it's hella fun.

William Morris, The Wood Beyond the World (1894)--Morris is known as one of the most significant precursors of modern fantasy, for better or worse.  Worse, if this book is anything to go by, and I think it is.  The whole thing's written in a really gruesome faux-archaic style; I'd say it gets real old real fast, but actually, it was real old right from the get-go.  Here's the opening, for flavor:

Awhile ago there was a young man dwelling in a great and goodly city by the sea which had to name Langton on Holm.   He was but of five and twenty winters, a fair-faced man, yellow-haired, tall and strong; rather wiser than foolisher than young men are mostly wont; a valiant youth, and a kind; not of many words but courteous of speech; no roisterer, nought masterful, but peaceable and knowing how to forbear: in a fray a perilous foe, and a trusty war-fellow.

It goes on like that.  Verbs like "wot" and "hight" are deployed many times.  It's worth noting that Morris had this idea that books should be Art Objects, and accordingly, the original printing of The Wood Beyond the World is in an unreadably ornate font--which certainly goes along with his general aesthetic.  The writing isn't good, and it's all in service of a really uninteresting story where the young man in question is in love with a maid, but there's also an enchantress, and also a dwarf, and none of it really makes any impact.  In its favor, however, it is quite short.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, Breakfast of Champions (1973)--When you think about it, it's a little weird that I haven't read more Vonnegut.  But I liked Slaughterhouse-Five, so here's this.  Aaaand…it mainly struck me as so much self-indulgent noodling around.  Not actively unpleasant to read, but other than its general cultural cachet, no real reason to either.  He's not doing anything that Barthelme didn't do better.

Walter M. Miller, Jr, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)--Let the Cold War paranoid reign!  a post-apocalyptic novel in three parts, each set about six hundred years after the previous.  The world having been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, and most knowledge lost, various people scurry around, trying to recover and preserve knowledge.  There's some interesting philosophical stuff about whether there's any meaning to preserving words when no one can understand them, what the responsibilities are of the church (Miller's Catholicism seems an important factor here), which has long taken this preservation on itself.  And so on.  I also found the extent to which the milieu here (in the first part particularly) obviously influenced the Fallout brand of post-apocalypse interesting.  The abbey area reintroduced in the Fallout 2 restoration patch is obviously a specific Miller reference.  Still, in the end, the book's dour worldview didn't really do it for me.  I have little interest in reading the posthumous sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.  


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