Friday, July 19, 2013

Crichton & Preston, Micro

The book club is just going to LOVE this one, Michael Crichton and Richard Preston's Micro. There's some debate, I think, about just how far into the book Crichton was when he passed away in 2008, but however far in he was, the decision was made to bring in Richard Preston to finish the job.

Now, Preston's a hell of a writer, I keep hearing, and I quite enjoyed his book The Wild Trees, but he isn't really a novelist. Given that his shelf contains one novel and a series of well-respected nonfiction books, he was an odd choice to complete a Michael Crichton page-turner, even if (as I suspect) there was a healthy support team at Harper Collins and/or at Crichton HQ.

Novelist and reviewer Robert Wiersema isn't always right, shockingly, but he's mostly right in his review of Micro, calling it "neither a good book nor a good read." The joke is that he has just said of Crichton's other works that while none of them are good books, at least they're good reads, so his objection to Micro goes only one step beyond his objections to other Crichton novels. Still ... not very heartening, is it?

The science in the novel is wonderful, though. The characters are stereotypical enough to verge on cartoons, the plotting is sketchy enough that at times I felt like we just weren't supposed to mind the obvious ridiculous gaps in narrative probability (as distinct from the entirely allowable scientific improbability), and the thematics are just a mess, but there was something very appealing about the depictions of life at a microscopic level. You're probably better off watching Microcosmos if you'd appreciate just the unexplained images of insect existence, but as a green nerd, I enjoyed lots of the bug science sections.

All the detective work, gun battles, venture capitalism, romance, and grad student life, now: not so much.

"And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords!"
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that my review is probably coloured by my antipathy toward the portrayal of Danny Minot, a humanities grad student studying science discourse, who keeps getting all postmodern up in the scientists' grills, saying things like "But what is real, anyway?" and "Nature is just a construct". Quite apart from the slander implied against the great state of North Dakota, and against my former volleyball teammate Karen King who spent quite a bit of time in Minot, even though she's not the same Karen King as is in this novel, it's just .... Preston, you have an English degree. What the hell, man? You see your peers as Danny Minot? I don't want to give away much of the plot, but let's just say that the rogue capitalist isn't the only horrible individual in the novel, and I was disappointed that the humanities guy was so irredeemable.

I'd recommend this book for -- well, for no one, really. It's definitely no Under the Dome, but go read anyything else Richard Preston has ever written instead, and you'll be a better person as well as more entertained. Micro just doesn't didn't cut it for me, even though some people apparently and inexplicably loved this novel.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Timothy Egan, The Good Rain

On its initial publication, in 1991, this was pretty much the perfect volume for those of us living in Cascadia. I can't imagine a book of that time offering a better researched look at the Pacific Northwest, with historical perspective and genuine intimacy, than Timothy Egan's The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest.

And I wish I'd read it then, rather than 22 years later. I can imagine the power it would've had over me then, the different paths I might've taken, and even though I'm lying to myself in saying that, because honestly, all I've really done is consistently failed to avoid becoming This Guy, I can see in this book a version of the Pacific Northwest, cross-border, that I wish I would've thought then was possible.

There's a beautiful naivety to The Good Rain now, sparking in me a nostalgia for a path that was never possible, that I never would've taken in the early 1990s and that the United States has made impossible ever since. I am utterly unable to understand, today, the US-Canada border as merely notional, as an accidental subdivision of semi-utopian Cascadia.

Not with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin because he thought maybe he was possibly under threat from the kid, even though Zimmerman had trailed and confronted him rather than letting him just walk home unmolested.

Not after the Texas legislature today, in the course of passing the inevitably restrictive laws against abortion access, disproportionately affecting rural and poor Texans, had attendees searched for tampons and pads, but allowed to carry their guns into the gallery.

Are there bigger threats to global security than the US? Yeah. Of course. Duh.

Is there anything about the US that I find inspiring anymore? Also, yeah. Also, of course.

But when I do my damnedest to imagine a way forward, toward some version of the Star Trek future that we'll have to achieve ASAP if we're not to suffocate under climate change or dread disease or bee extinction or whatever, the US no longer provides any of that imaginative force.

Egan did a wonderful job, in The Good Rain, of portraying the struggles of early American explorers, the absurd bounty provided to humans by the nature of the Pacific Northwest's coast and rivers and temperate forest, and the persistent struggle of American Indians of resisting and seeking redress from the American government and its settlers. I came away from the book hungry for road trips, for hikes, and for exploring places close to home I've never heard of before. If I was an American today, especially one with connections to the Pacific Northwest, I might read this book to remind myself that as recently as 20 years ago, another way was open to me and to my nation. Maybe it'd make me feel better, and maybe it'd give me the impetus to defend my vision of my country.

But I'm not American. And really, The Good Rain mostly made me sad, because the American that Tim Egan portrays here is a million miles, perspective-wise, from the society responsible for George Zimmerman's acquittal and the Texas legislature's thuggish views on women's health, civil liberties, and violence.

And those are just the news items from today.

America, you got it wrong. If you want to do something toward making it right again, might I suggest starting with something like Tim Egan's The Good Rain?