Monday, October 1, 2012

What I read this month

The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum. I picked up this book after reading "The House Beyond Your Sky" by Rosenbaum in Strange Horizons. I love that story. It features a lot of big ideas and an epic scope, but takes care with its characters. It builds a world and populates it with a few people a reader can give a crap about--it's a really good science fiction story.

I hoped to get more of the same in this collection of short stories, but the mix of the large-scale and small-scale interest that I found in "The House Beyond Your Sky" was generally missing. Several stories made a habit of being wacky, sometimes wallowing in randomness, like the title story, "The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale." There were a few exceptions: "A Siege of Cranes" is a big story, with a compelling plot and a few compelling characters, that reads like a nightmare. "Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes," by Benjamin Rosenbaum" manages to take the randomness that cripples other stories and make it the point of the story, building a thesis about chance, fate, and authorial intent. I liked most of the stories, but didn't love them. I didn't feel like I needed to read more after I'd finished the book.

Pretties by Scott Westerfeld. The second book set in the "Uglies" universe, of four. I had some problems with Uglies, the first book in this series. I had problems with the logic of the world: why is the shady central government absent from Tally's life in certain convenient ways that make her propensity for mischief possible? Why are penalties for breaking the rules of this society so light? Why does Special Circumstances leave so much to chance when they send Tally to find The Smoke? Why does Special Circumstances care so much about The Smoke? Why not let them go their own way? This sort of stuff. The main problem, though, was Tally. Tally is not very interesting. She's not particularly smart or intuitive and, frankly, she bored me. Maybe that's a little harsh, but she's not going to read this, so whatever.

These problems largely remain in Pretties, though at the end of the book Special Circumstances threatens Tally with consequences that seem proportional to her crimes. Had that threat come earlier in the novel, however, (instead of merely being implied) it would have helped deepen the conflict and brought Tally's motives into sharper relief. More world-building problems arise in Pretties, too.

My negative comments here have to be taken in context: I devoured this book. It moves quickly. There's a ton of action. I cared more about Tally in Pretties than I did in Uglies, because with an entire first book under her belt she seemed somehow more substantial. However, I haven't gone to buy Specials, the third book, yet. I'm not in a hurry to find out what happens, though I'm sure when I finally start Specials I won't be able to put it down.

1491 by Charles C. Mann. A review of research into the historical record of the pre-Columbian Americas. A compelling book that peeled away many of my (previously unexamined) beliefs and prejudices regarding Native Americans and their societies. Though "about" what happened before Columbus, the book spends a fair amount of its length discussing what happened after Europeans came. It has to, to build a credible case that most of the native population had died of disease by the time Europeans began to take detailed records of local populations. And it takes the reader through the early days of the Pilgrims, Pizarro's conquest of Peru, and Cortez's conquest of Mexico, to show that the old canard--Europeans won because they were technologically superior than the Indians--is, if not entirely false in every case, not the whole story.

A coda at the end of the book suggests that Native Americans had a larger cultural impact on European settlers of North America than historians and anthropologists often assume. I'm not in a position to seriously debate the claims of professional researchers, but even if the claim is reckless and stupid it wouldn't change its importance. The first few hundred years of the United States were of time of extreme bigotry, racial violence, and social darwinian explanations of the supremacy of the white race. No matter the outcome of the inquiry, its worth scrutinizing American history to unpack our modern racial baggage, and to give Native American people and cultures the respect they deserve.

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