Saturday, September 08, 2007

BooksFirst - August 2007

Books Bought

Spook Country By William Gibson

Books Read

China Road by Rob Gifford
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
One Perfect Day by Rebecca Mead


While hanging around BigBoxOfBooks™ waiting for Pottermania to kick in, I ran across China Road, Rob Gifford’s take on modern China. The gimmick of the book is that it is told travelogue style as he takes a road trip from Shanghai to the western border of China all along Route 312, which is like a Chinese Route 66. I started reading the chapter about Xian since I had been there on my trip to China this summer. I got hooked and put it on reserve at the library since it was too long to read in one wild night at the bookstore.

While on his road trip, NPR reporter Gifford talked to a wide variety of people including businessmen, truck drivers, Buddhist monks, karaoke prostitutes, abortionists, AIDS activists and others. He often goes incognito since journalism is heavily censored in China. This way he gets a real look at the current attitudes and opinions of the general population. He follows some themes through the whole book. One is that the pace of modernization is massively disruptive to Chinese society. The Chinese government has made an implicit deal trading economic growth for political freedom. This trade-off is very fragile and growing unrest in the traditional peasantry could topple the balance at any time. His other wider observation is that the years of communist rule and the Cultural Revolution in particular erased the long established Confucian values. As communism is discredited, there is a moral vacuum in Chinese society that has not been filled. The growth at any cost attitude without any tempering sense of responsibility is ripe for disaster.

The travel aspect of the book is really secondary to the multi-faceted insights into the rapid changes affected the world’s most populous country. I only spent two weeks in China but I found the results of his six years of work in the region to be both eye-opening and consistent with my own observations.

When I found out that William Gibson would be in the region promoting his new book Spook Country, I immediately felt guilty having never getting around to his earlier book Pattern Recognition. I immediately launched a crash reading program to get through it before the signing. Fortunately, this was not hard. Truly a page turner, the book was fast paced and intriguing. Much has been made that both this book and Spook Country are not “true” science fiction and set in contemporary culture. There is nobody "jacking in" to the "net". The characters use chat forums and search engines and all the tools of the post-internet world available to everybody. The one true cyberhacker in the book is not even particularly competent. In Pattern Recognition, the only suspension of disbelief required is that the protagonist Cayce Pollard has an allergy to branding that she has found a way to monetize. The conceit works on a very metaphorical level and helps make the themes of the novel clear.

William Gibson has become increasingly interested in the intersection of technology and pop culture. In Pattern Recognition, the macguffin is a series of viral videos that have become a cult obsession. The denouement is not as mind blowing as it would be in a full hardcore science fiction novel, but it is clever and consistent. The plot has been intricately crafted so that everything follows the internal logic of the world he has created. Gibson really believes in a sense of verisimilitude. The descriptions of places that I have been to are spot on, which gives me a trust over his other descriptions. His recent books by being set in the modern world are actually more fascinating than the far future tales.

Another book I (well actually my wife) discovered in a bookstore and went to the library to finish is One Perfect Day. The book tries to be an expose into the industrial wedding complex. It’s biggest revelation is that many of the “traditions” seen at weddings and receptions are recent innovations often created by people wanting to sell you something. If this is not a huge discovery to you, the other parts of this expose will be even more anti-climactic.
  • Weddings are too expensive.
  • Brides-to-be get really carried away.
  • People want to take advantage of your need to keep up with the Star Joneses.
  • Wedding paraphernalia is really silly.
This book started life as a magazine article and the stretch marks show. There is a lot of padding. Each chapter covers one particular part of the industry including wedding planners, wedding dresses, honeymoon destinations. The reporting is thorough and comprehensive, but not earth-shatteringly new.

1 comment:

Mooselet said...

I'm always so jealous of your books posts as I have little time to read a novel. Last time I went to the library I checked out 3 issues of National Geographic so at least I feel intelligent when I'm reading something.