Friday, November 29, 2013

Paul Chadwick, Think Like a Mountain

I wasted my youth, wasted it: seriously, why the hell didn't I read more comics?

Stupid studying.

Don't get me wrong, most days I'm glad that I wound up reading enough canonical literature, enough times, that I ended up teaching English. Every so often, though, I encounter something that speaks of other paths that would have made just as much sense, maybe more, and that's exactly the case with Paul Chadwick's Think Like a Mountain, the fifth volume of his Concrete series.

Basic setup for the series: aliens encased Ron Lithgow, speechwriter for a Democratic Senator, in 1200 pounds of living concrete. In Chadwick's words: "Now he copes with a world where chairs crumble like breadsticks and car bodies dent like foil. He lacks nose, skin and genitalia. He has mood problems" (as you would, obviously).

Mostly Concrete's a travel writer, but he detours regularly into environmentalism and political outrage, and Think Like a Mountain is the most overtly environmentalist of the collections.

Through a complicated series of events, Concrete finds himself on an EarthFirst! campaign, visiting the San Juan Islands and a clearcut on Vancouver Island before engaging in a full-on monkey-wrenching of equipment involved in the logging of old-growth timber at a place called Hidden Valley. The art's fantastic, and it's a complex story about rich characters (some of them cartoonish, as they are in the best novels exactly as in cartoons), doubting and speculating and groping towards thoughts of action in a world where extreme action still might not be enough.

Think Like a Mountain, named of course after the classic Aldo Leopold essay, came out in 1989, right when climate change was just beginning to enter mainstream discourse. Logging was the key issue at that time for the American and Canadian west, and while logging protest remains a keystone species (so to speak) here on Vancouver Island, it sometimes feels like it's beside the point. Leopold's essay, too, with its grand and ringing title, had an apparent subject something far narrower than mountains and cognition, because he was talking on the surface about why it's a terrible idea, pragmatically as well as symbolically, to hunt wolves into local extinction.

Chadwick's web page offering Concrete's bio says mildly, "He has mood problems," and he does. In this particular volume, Concrete finds himself consumed by depression at humanity's callous treatment of the natural world, and of each other. He acts more than he means to; he doubts more than he wants to; and the world carries on, within him and without him and in spite of him.

Seriously, why didn't I read more comics when I was younger?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Daniel Griffin, Stopping for Strangers

I'm coming late to the party, as usual; that's true of most parties, when I manage even to attend in the first place, which isn't often, but never mind that now.

When Daniel Griffin's Stopping for Strangers came out in 2012, it got all kinds of positive attention, and after he came along to our book club, I can confirm that Griffin's both an excellent stylist and a decent guy. A sampling of positive reviews:
The thing is … I don't like the book as much as I want to. So, yeah, those other positive reviews are meant as deflectors. Sue me.

Ordinarily I'd try not to be defensive about this, different strokes etc., but then the reliably smart blog Pickle Me This talked some smack about those who don't like the book, calling Griffin's "the kind of stories that will annoy people who think that they don't like short stories. Those readers who want to know what happens next, who require certain closure, who like a beginning, middle and end."

Kerry Clare's a voice for good in publishing terms, and a wise reviewer, so I'm sure she meant nothing like what I took from this comment, which is that Griffin's stories could only be disliked by mouth-breathing  readers of (shudder) non-fiction, by the unhelpfully young or infirm, or by … well, who are these hypothetical Miss Prisms, anyway?

Not that I have a sound critique of the book handy.

Courtesy of the wise Frog and the Wellblog (and book!)
When I was at an environmental humanities conference recently in Seattle, a scientist was asked what humanists do, and he paused before replying: "You are the penguins who pick up the pebble, and consider it, and put it down, and stand there. And pick up the pebble, and consider it." (Brilliant image, curse Julia Parrish for reframing my whole worldview and self-image so casually!) This time around, I know that I haven't picked up the pebble often enough, but I'm trying to be okay with that. There are, after all, so damned many pebbles.

Stopping for Strangers is a collection of excellent Carver-esque stories, possibly excellently Carver-esque stories, and if that's your bag, you'll enjoy them.

But they're not my bag, they never have been, and except when provoked, I'm usually content with the idea that I have unexplicated preferences. Rather than explicating them here today, though, I'm just going to stay cranky.

So there.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Twelve Tomorrows

The end of literature, the end of reading, the end of culture, the end of history: we read about these things. He's a pretty great scholar, Randy Malamud, even if I don't know that I trust his book Poetic Animals and Animal Souls, but his recent story in the books section of Huffington Post (to which I REFUSE to direct you) is really just linkbait, and there's no other word for most of these stories.

Mind you -- times are seriously hard in some publishing circles, and for booksellers. These are my people, and I hate that their futures are so unstable, that their commitments to literate and literary culture are so unpleasantly at tension with profit-taking corporate behaviour. Because I can't see that the MIT Technology Review is likely to be suffering, I don't like their decision to publish the occasional SF short-story anthology: it's poaching.

But it's also terrific, their efforts in this area.

Every short-story collection has its weak links, and Twelve Tomorrows is no different, but a half-dozen of these are outstanding. The opening piece is well worth your time, a Q&A with Neal Stephenson, on stage at MIT, on ideas of futurity and art and big data and writing while walking on a treadmill, and the clear majority of the fiction ranges upward from merely insightful. Some highlights for me:
  • Ian McDonald's "The Future Will Not Be Refrigerated," which explains why one future revolution's statue will commemorate a satellite dish, a game console, and a refrigerator;
  • Allen M. Steele's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," a barely updated old-school story on the collision between religion and space travel;
  • Nancy Fulda's "The Cyborg and the Cemetery," an intimate look at an elderly man whose prosthetic leg, long ago, accidentally became sentient;
  • Peter Watts' "Firebrand," which ingeniously manages to blend spontaneous human combustion with both greenwashing and green technology, including an explosion in a Burnaby Starbucks; and
  • Justin Robson's "Pwnage," which might be the smartest story in the collection, about an MI5 agent in a near-future where we've become our phones, who spends her time provoking forms of insurrection so they can be squashed -- who inadvertently witnesses a miraculously subversive networked use of the new technology against corporate domination.
From the must-read site Mind-Blowing Science
My favourite paragraph is one of Robson's, where her narrator explains the future Cloud:
As the codesmiths in the foundry that underlies all communications forge the codes of law into the Cloud itself with their programming skills and their government mandates, there is still conviction that solid matter can be manufactured out of vapours in the air. The Human Cloud is nerdvana. The Cloud is the natural evolved result of human minds soaring toward the singularity, but--oh, hold your bated breath, cherubs--together. (p.169)
The best SF reframes your own world, and gives you a perspective from which to consider the one that's coming. Each of these five stories does that, Justina Robson's best of all in my view (today, at least!), but I've got terrible news: this collection's going to drive you to add a half-dozen MORE BOOKS onto your reading list. And when the singularity comes, we're going to have even more books uselessly on our bedside tables than we were going to have before we picked up Twelve Tomorrows.