Friday, July 06, 2007
BooksFirst: Travel Edition
Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge
Rough Guide to Beijing
Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
This is a special edition of my regular BooksFirst post so that I can get back on track with posting at the beginning of the month. One good thing about long plane trips is that you have plenty of time to catch up on your reading, even after factoring in sleeping and watching bad buddy movies.
Vernor Vinge is one of the best science fiction writers nobody has ever heard of. This multiple Hugo-winner is incredibly creative and has continually turned upside down the conventions of traditional hard-sf milieus. On a per book basis, he is perhaps the highest quality writer in the field.
Rainbow’s End is his take on the cyber-punkish near future scenarios pioneered by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and takes it to the next level. In Vinge’s world, the cyberworld and the realworld overlap with all sorts of multiple levels of virtual projection. It also posits a rapidly changing culture where a few years in a coma leave you’re irreparably lost in the wake of future shock. The rather intricately woven plot centers around three generations of a family of the future. The macguffin of the plot never quite lives up to its potential, but the book throws away more ideas than most novels even have. There are several gizmos and devices in the book that if not already under development need to be patented pronto. I particularly want the self serving refrigerator/kitchen counter combo.
My bible while in China was the Rough Guide to Beijing. When we plan a trip, we go to BigBoxOfBooks and browse all the travel books and pick a few that look useful. Rough Guides are less comprehensive but hipper than the big names. I liked the way it was organized by neighborhood with all the sights described by area. Nothing is worse than having to flip back and forth because shopping, dining, and sightseeing are all in different sections.
Every morning I would get up between 5 and 6 and go walking for a few hours before the scheduled activities began. I took with me my camera and a small backpack with a camcorder, the Rough Guide, and a tourist map I bought for a buck in the hotel gift shop. Between the map and the guide book I found all the interesting attractions to the north and east of the Forbidden City on my own.
Naked Economics is a wittily written primer that makes the dismal science interesting. The many absurd and clever examples illustrate even the most obtuse concept. Charles Wheelan leads the reader down a path of increasingly controversial topics with clarity and perspective. It is hard to read this book and not come away an ardent free trader.
Reading this book while in rapidly developing China was particularly relevant. Everywhere I looked I could see his examples of how education, drive, and human capital could overcome the severest handicaps. The Chinese have taken to capitalism like a gourmand coming off a long diet. The speed with which a dour authoritarian regime can become a neon-glazed temple of consumerism is astounding. Everywhere there were billboards and neon signs. With all the product and food safety scare articles coming out of China right now, maybe the pendulum needs to swing back a little towards increased government regulation and scrutiny.
I got literary goth rock star Neil Gaiman to autograph a hardcover copy of Good Omens, which he cowrote with fellow clever Briton Terry Pratchett, when he was at Balticon last year. To my shame, I had started the book a long time ago but never finished. I used the return flight to start over and finished it before the wheels touched the ground.
The book combines the premises of The Omen with The Importance of Being Ernest. An angel and a demon covertly conspire to keep the anti-Christ from bringing on the Apocalypse. The pace is madcap and the satire is razor sharp. Overall the tone in way more Ankh-Morpork than Neverwhere, still there are small strands of Gaiman darkness struggling to get out. Never has Manichaeism, pre-destination, free will, and the nature versus nurture debate ever been wrapped up so delightfully drolly. Still, the two authors tend to overstuff everything and the book could have been maybe 20% shorter without loosing any of its edge. A great breezy fantasy.