Wednesday, June 20, 2007

BooksFirst - May and June 2007

Books Bought

The Smoke Ring by Larry Niven (first edition, autographed)
The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven (first edition)
The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (first edition)
The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven
Ringworld’s Children by Larry Niven
Naked Economics by Charles Whelan
The Best of the Best: 20 Years Of The Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois

Books Read

Boomsday by Christopher Buckley
The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven
Ten Days In The Hills by Jane Smiley


Once again I am late with my BooksFirst post. As I will explain later, I hit a road block on a book that I nearly finished in May, but I wanted to get this post out before I forgot everything about the other books I read recently.

I have been eagerly awaiting Boomsday by Christopher Buckley. I read Florence of Arabia last fall and thought current events had passed it by. Buckley avoids this trap by placing Boomsday (the name he gives the day baby boomers start retiring and bankrupt social security) slightly in the future which allows him to satirically extrapolate current trends. Like Ana Marie Cox's Dog Days, which I read in May, the protagonist is a young female blogger with a chip on her shoulder. The plot is convoluted to say the least, but at the center is Cassandra Devine who through her online blog and lobbyist connections tries to throw some light on the baby boom retirement crisis. She only mildly tongue-in-cheek comes up with some old fashioned Swiftian modest proposals. She suggests “voluntary transitioning” or paying aging boomers to knock a few years off their golden years.

I was hoping for a more biting look at the blogosphere, but the virtual aspect of the story is actually pretty slim. More interesting is the sausage-getting-made look at the log-rolling, back-stabbing, and throat-cutting that goes on when trying to pass even ludicrously untenable legislation. There are a lot of broad stereotypes here including a dim-witted president with a conniving chief of staff, a rich but stupid politician with presidential ambitions, a sexually conflicted televangelist, a silk-collar member of the clergy, an unscrupulous internet mogul, and a smorgasbord of even more ludicrous minor characters. The plot itself deftly wraps several threads together, but the initial MacGuffin is never quite addressed. I’m not sure how you do any contemporary story about government assisted suicide without name checking Vonnegut at least once, but Buckley, to his shame, does just that.

This is a fun, frolicking read, but not quite what I wanted. Still, it is one of his better works and side-splittingly funny in a lot of places. It’s going to be even funnier in a few years when it becomes true.

When I go to Balticon, I always peruse the dealer tables for collectible books to get the guests to sign. This year, the best I could find at reasonable prices were some sequels to their more famous books. Since the dealer had a thirty dollar minimum charge, I randomly grabbed a book to fill out the order. The Draco Tavern is a short story collection about a guy who owns the only bar in Earth that serves extra-terrestrial tourists.

While waiting for Jerry Pournelle to move the line along, I asked Larry if The Draco Tavern got compared to the Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon series. He kind of annoyed answered, “Well, they both take place in bars.” The Draco Tavern stories are more vignettes or thought pieces than true stories. The formula is that some exotic alien shows up with a problem of some type and after a few drinks, or the alien equivalent therof, a clever resolution is achieved. A few of the longer ones are very good, but the shorter ones come off as writing exercises, which they probably were. Larry Niven is at the stage in his career where his cocktail napkin doodlings sell, and a few of these stories are of that quality. But the tales are quick and breezy and usually humorous. If you need more Niven, these are good quick-bite fun-sized stories.

Ten Days In The Hills is on of these modern literary books that gets glowingly reviewed everywhere. It is loosely based on The Decameron as ten people spend ten days in close quarters getting into each other’s grille. The ten people are a who’s who of Hollywood lefty artsy types. We have an aging mid-list writer/director, his book-writing wife, his sexy starlet ex, and a mish-mash of relatives, agents, old friends, and hanger-ons. The book is divided into ten chapters and each chapter is divided into different points of view. Each time the point of view is switched at least one old tale, anecdote, film treatment, or urban legend unfolds. There is a lot of sex and not nearly enough of the good stuff happens on stage. For such a faux-smutty novel, the language is surprisingly prim.

A long time ago, I read Moo by Jane Smiley thought it was a very clever skewering of academic life, so I was looking forward to 10 Days. I even had a gimmick. Since I had checked it out off the waiting list at the library, I only had three weeks to read it. I intended to read one chapter a night for ten nights. Each chapter is nearly (and suspiciously) precisely 45 pages long. At a rate of a page a minute, that would make a good nightly read. I never hit that pace because the point of view shifts and long backstories bogged me down.

I did manage to get through the first half on track. Then I set it aside for Balticon where I found an advanced proof copy on a gimme table and the deadline of the library due date went out the window. I tried to get back into it but each chapter kept kept getting longer and longer. Day 8 picked up but then the book turned into a roadblock. I was determined to finish before starting something else, but I just couldn’t follow through. The entire first two weeks of June went by in avoidance.

Finally I buckled down and just plowed through. The whole back half of the book where they decamp to a wealthy Russian gangsters Xanadu-like villa is more dynamic, but ultimately confusing and pointless.

The book is set near the start of the Iraq war and the war is an enormous symbol in the book, but of what I have no idea. They keep talking about their dread of “the war” but the characters never seem to have any real connection to it. There is no sense of a parallel with current events like Ian Mcewan pulled off in Saturday. These Ulysses-like time compressed novels seem to be a trend, but not a good one. I could have spent my ten days in much better company.

For the next month I am staying away from heavy lifting both figuratively and literally. I am packing a lot of books for my trip to China and the reading list is being expressly chosen for disposability and lack of bulk. We’ll see how far I get.


Anonymous said...

Niven has been producing Draco tavern stories for decades. Since the early 70s, at least. I think a couple were collected in All the Myriad Ways. And actually, some of those shorter, less good pieces are the early ones. This book is part of a trend for Niven, where he collects related stories under a single title with one or two new ones thrown in (for instance, all the Bey Schaeffer stories in Crashlander or the Svetz stories in Rainbow Mars).

He has always been annoyed by Callahan comparisons. First, I think the Draco tavern predates Callahan by a few years, and second because bar stories have been around for far longer than both, even in SF (Clarke's Tales from the Whit Hart).

My favorite Niven bar story, though, has to be The Fourth Profession, which comes from his Monk universe.

yellojkt said...

You really know your Niven. I've never gotten into the more obscure Known Space stuff enough to folllow the whole saga. Someday.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

I need to read something a little heavier than I have been, so to speak...however that looks like it's likely to be the newest Janet Evanovich novel...which is hardly heavy reading. :( I'm so ashamed of myself.

Uh...wait..No I'm not..I'm just a huge lover of all things fluffy :)

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