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2015-09-27

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan



Well written, fun, fascinating and yet disappointing.

I read the book cover to cover in 8 days. I was expecting magical realism. The book implied a TARDIS-like bookstore. The mystery seemed huge and sinister. I loved the elements of history, the utter love Sloan has of books, and the acceptance of technology. I loved that Kat seemed like a real person she had her own life, her own ambitions, she was intelligent, skilled, but not perfect.

Every character was real. There seemed to be almost no stock characters. Even Deckle who seems so minor has a life and ambition all his own.

So why disappointing. At the end of the story, it all seemed so banal. I expected more. Repeatedly the book seems to be building to something sinister that never comes.

My biggest criticism of the book otherwise is the portrayal of Google. The company plays a major role in the second half of the novel. The portrayal is bizarre. It makes us sound more like elves in Lothlorien than a company in Mountain View. On one hand: I'm sure that is what outsiders think; on the other hand: do some research beyond what tech journalists say.

The epilogue of the book feels like an afterthought and fake. I don't really believe that was what happened in the end and I feel like Jannon is lying to us.

I wish I had more to say but the story is pretty short and a very fast read. In the end the message is, well, kind of mundane further adding to the disappointment.

I think I'll have to read some real magical realism now.

2015-09-16

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

Felicia Day

Working at Google has perks. One of which is the Authors@Google program. The program gets authors to come and speak to Googlers. Felicia Day was the most recent author in the Kirkland office. I'm not the biggest Felicia Day fan, I loved Dr. Horrible and loved her stint on Eureka. But I never watched Buffy, haven't watched The Guild and stopped watching Supernatural by her stint on the show. I didn't know that much about her. Her talk was fantastic and pretty inspiring for those of who deal with social anxiety and depression. So I was really interested in reading her book (bonus I got a complimentary copy for being one of the first XX people to get to the talk).

Speaking to her after as she signed my book was probably one of the most stressful moments of my life and I'm sure I came off incredibly awkward. I'm actually disappointed I didn't read her book before because I think my exchange would have gone differently. 

I got to the front of the line, Felicia takes the book from an assistant who has made sure my name is legible and easy for her to see. She looks at the post it note, looks up at me and says, "Your name is familiar, do I know you?" I'm shocked and the most I can do is a shrug. I finally get out a joke, "Well I attended Texas A&M", Felicia went to the rival University of Texas. She laughs and says, "So, you're the enemy?" I laugh too and another assistant snaps a photo of us.

Felicia and Me
Why did I wish I read it first? I know have a few possibilities of how I may have met her before.

So fanboying aside, what about the book. The book is very much written in her voice. It has a frantic pace that sometimes doesn't do justice to the seriousness of the content. The book is pretty much an account of working through isolation, weirdness, depression, anxiety, addiction (to video games) to actually achieve something. It's quirky, personal and inspiring. It made me realize that the inner voice that degrades what you create and holds it up against your own ideas and misconceptions about what others are doing and achieving is just a lie.

That said the book appeals to a certain demographic, those of us who grew up being different and are still trying to find our voice and our place need to read this. Because this book celebrates us.

2015-09-04

City

City

Clifford D. Simak

I have a soft spot for 1950s Science Fiction. Isaac Asimov's Robot series was the first serious adult fiction I read. I was in the 6th grade. I went through Asimov's Robot books and Foundation books. I read Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert in 7th grade. As I got older I still turn back to the golden age of Science Fiction.

City for me is like an old cozy quilt. Much like Asimov's early works it isn't as much a novel as a tight collection of short stories. Many of the elements are very familiar and the book in many ways is a precursor to Clarke and Asimov.

The collection is drawn together to appear as if it was a scholar edition of oral legends that make up the "mythical" canon of ancient Doggish history. The question the edition is approaching is simple "Is Man a Myth?" You see the edition is a product of intelligent speaking dogs.

The stories begin in the mid-21st century. The urban complexes of the 20th century are dying. Hydroponics and Yeast-based protein substituted have made agriculture to collapse. Farms are abandoned and empty. The middle and upper classes are buying up massive estates built by robots for almost nothing and commuting in to work via personal helicopters. The suburbs are almost empty as no one wants to live in a cramped suburb anymore.

The story, and all of the subsequent ones in the book, center on the Webster family. The family at the beginning are still living in a suburban Chicago home. Dispossessed farmers squatting in foreclosed home-compounds are pretty much their only remaining neighbors.

Over the following stories, we jump forward and learn more about the Webster clan's following generations always accompanied by a faithful robot servant, Jenkins. The third tale introduces the dogs. A result of experimentation by a Webster, the dogs are given the power of speech and literacy.

We also learn of the Mutants, implied to be the descendants of the farmer-squatters from the first story they bring an element of mystery as their motives and thought become less and less human.

In the meantime, man has spread out across the solar system, encountered aliens on Venus and Mars and are planning to go to the stars.

But a series of events, both innocent and malicious, alter the course of humanity leaving the robots, the dogs, and a small enclave of dispirited humans left on the Earth.

The book explores the nature of intelligence and how we approach reality and progress are tied to our own natures

Like most books of the period, you take the science tongue-in-cheek. Lamarckian inheritance is used to explain doggish speech (which is particularly cringe-worthy), there is a strong, albeit subverted, current of 1950s futurism. One thing the book from my perspective in 2015 does give me is a realization that while Simak, who was criticizing the Atomic Age futurism as potentially not resulting in our idea of utopia, seems as dated as many of the futuristic predictions of his time there is a good chance that modern singularity cynics, like Charles Stross, will also seem dated as what comes about won't be what either the futurists or the cynics predict but something different.

My biggest criticism is I that while, I applaud Simak's deep love of dogs, his views of man and dog are a bit stilted. Man is not solely a creature of mechanical progress and death as the later parts of the book proposes. Nor are we truly individualistic hedonists like the early part of the book proposes. We are a social animal. It's why we are able to co-exist with dogs so well. We both have similar social structures. Dogs also are not altruists. They politic amongst themselves, engage in their own small wars, they even kill for pleasure. I love dogs, I do. But they are much more like us than Simak makes them out to be.

All in all, I love the book. And it amazes me how many elements of Simak's stories were later reused by the giants.

I received a digital copy of this book for review from NetGalley and the publisher.