28 September 2010

Biological science fiction

Some time ago, Gary Sankary mentioned, in his blog Old and In the Way, that he'd enjoyed reading Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear. That was a recommendation to explore, even though he said very little else.

In the back of my head I knew that Greg Bear was a science fiction writer. So, the next time I was in the Northfield library, I browsed through the science fiction section looking for his name. A number of his books were on the shelf, but not Darwin's Radio. Okay, I thought, I'll look again later.

After several unsuccessful forays to the science fiction shelves, I resorted to using the catalog (it's still a card catalog to me, even if it's now online). And there I found the book. It had probably been on a shelf all along, but someone had decided to shelve it in the "fiction" section instead of the "science fiction" section.

This has happened before and I don't get it. Sure, there are no space aliens, intergalactic travel, or imaginary technology in Bear's book, but it's the best kind of science fiction. It is (or was when written in '99) a projection of ideas based on contemporary science. So shelve it with the rest of science fiction.

The science it's based on is biology -- molecular biology involving DNA. Now, I still don't understand very much about this science. I have read enough Stephen J. Gould essays to grasp the concept of punctuated equilibrium, but beyond that I'm clueless. Bear could have been telling me that up is down in genetics and I wouldn't have known the difference. But he seemed to understand the basics and some of the scientific speculation. And then Bear struck out from there to science fiction.

WordiQ.com says, "The scientific details in his work are such that he is usually classified as a hard science fiction author...

"Darwin's Radio... stick[s] closely to the known facts of molecular biology of viruses and evolution. While some fairly speculative ideas are entertained (it is after all, fiction) they are introduced in such a rigorous and disciplined way within the context of the cutting edge of those disciplines, that Darwin's Radio gained praise in the science journal Nature."

The mix that informs the plot includes mass murders in Eastern Europe, some possibly Neanderthal mummies in an ice cave in the Alps (Bear was referencing Ötzi the Iceman), a flu-like illness that seemed to be connected to huge numbers of spontaneous miscarriages and new ideas about human genetics. Nearly all the main characters are scientists, although some of them have fled the ivory towers of academe for commercial ventures and public health administration.

The scientific conflict arises when some scientists see rapid evolutionary change as a disease. The public health authorities have to take action to safeguard populations. Other scientists think they recognize evolution at work and do their best to evade the public health officials who threaten a natural process.

The central characters are a molecular biologist and a discredited archaeologist. Bear makes them an attractive couple and makes them fugitives by the end of the book -- sympathetic fugitives, but on the run nonetheless. That transition from science fiction to hide and seek was difficult for me.

There's too much scientific detail in the book for me. Bear spreads his explanation of genetic details quite thickly on the story. In other places, the story telling is somewhat ponderous. I found myself skimming and skipping a lot. But it's an engaging story and I, too, enjoyed reading it. I might even go looking for the sequel, Darwin's Children.

Have you read Darwin's Radio? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

22 September 2010

Literature Maps

I was playing with Literature Maps this morning before really getting underway. (One delight of retirement is that I can get up, post something on a professional blog, go for a sunrise walk, read headlines in more than a dozen newspapers, have breakfast and my first coffee, and then consider "getting underway" at 9:30am.)

The Literature Maps are part of Gnod, described on its web site as "a self-adapting system, living on this server and 'talking' to everyone who comes along. Gnods intention is to learn about the outer world and to learn 'understanding' its visitors." I'm not sure what that means, and there's no explanation of how the "system" works. However, if you click on the "Gnod Books" link, you get to a page titled, "gnooks." There you'll find links to the Literature Maps and a discussion about Literature Forms. You'll also find a link to "Gnod's Suggestions," which is where the site gathers data for constructing the Literature Maps. (It collects this data so literally, that typos and misspellings are also collected and republished on the Literature Maps.) At that page, you'll be asked to identify three of your favorite writers. Based on the names you submit, you'll be presented with the name of an author you might like and a link to a Literature Map for that author.

I'd looked at these Literature Maps before, but I hadn't spent much time looking carefully at them. The idea is that if you plug in an author's name, the program will create a "map" of names, and that the closer the names of "two writers are, the more likely [it will be that] someone will like both of them."

I've been tempted before to look at the names that are closest together, but this morning I discovered that the outliers are equally interesting.

So, here are links to Literature Maps for authors I've recently written about and some of my favorites. Using Carol O'Connell as an example, the names closest to hers on the "map" are Gerri Hill, Charles Todd, Maan Meyer, Elizabeth Amber, and Jo Clayton. None of these ring bells with me. However, if I look at the outer edges of this "map," I find the names Walter Mosely, Jonathan Kellerman, John LeCarre, Nevada Barr, Dana Stabenow, Marcia Muller, and Dick Francis, all of whom have written books I've liked. Does that fit with my ambivalent response to the Mallory mysteries?

So, look at some of these Literature Maps or create your own. How well do they reflect your experiences? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

21 September 2010

An American Salander?

A couple weeks ago, NetFlix delivered the DVD of the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to our mailbox. After reading the books and hearing Dan Conrad's raving about the movie, I was really looking forward to seeing the movie and reading the subtitles. I was not disappointed. I only wished I'd seen the movie on a big screen in a theater. The small screen seemed to limit the impact of the movie.

Nancy has not read the Larsson books, but she was entranced by the stories in the movie and taken by the Salander character. She was reminded of a central character in a series of mysteries by Carol O'Connell [left]: NY cop Kathy Mallory. The two young women characters are blazingly smart, extraordinary hackers, and physical fighters without equal. They both are the products of very traumatic childhoods. They're both loners. The differences are physical. If Salander is a tattooed, gothic waif, Mallory is a lucious beauty who can't do surveillance because everybody notices her.

Nancy pulled Mallory's Oracle and The Man Who Cast Two Shadows off her shelf and handed them to me. I read them both. There are big differences between the Stieg Larsson books and the Carol O'Connell books. I'm not quite sure what they are. All the characters are intriguing, but the Mallory character is somehow drawn less intensely than the Salander character.

Well, there is my reading. I think I read these books in snatches too small to get into the flow of the story telling. O'Connell uses quick cuts between "scenes" with little in the way of transistion. Sometimes there's an extra space between paragraphs; other times not. But I would be reading about a discussion of magic and illusion set in an old magician's storage spot. In the next sentence I would be reading about a poker game in which a character without a poker face keeps losing his spare change. And then there were so many characters. If I didn't remember who was who, I'd get totally lost in the transition. And if I read only a few pages at time, I had trouble remembering who was who.

So, the reading experience was, for me, disjointed.

The stories in these novels were intriguing and convoluted. The action scenes, were not interrupted by abrupt transistions and were well scripted. The setting is Manhattan. What's not to like? But, they were not as compelling as Larsson's stories. I could not have read his books in the small snatches I used to read O'Connell's.

Have you read Mallory's Oracle and/or The Man Who Cast Two Shadows? Have you read another of O'Connell's books? What did you think? Is Mallory an upper class version of Salander? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

20 September 2010

You're reading my memory

Novelist James Collins wrote about reading, memory, and thinking about reading in yesterday's New York Times. It reminded me of several of the reasons I began writing little bits about the the things I read. One of the reasons was to reflect on what I read. The other reason for writing an actual newsletter for 20 years and this blog for the last four is that this is my memory cache.

Collins' essay is well worth the 3 minutes it takes to read it.

PS: I've completely forgotten the plot of one of the last two books I read. My blog entry about it is in rough draft and will show up here soon — without a plot summary. In the meantime, I have to check the TV schedule to see if there's a golf match broadcast today.

The Plot Escapes Me
I have just realized something terrible about myself: I don’t remember the books I read… These are books I loved, but... all I associate with them is an atmosphere and a stray image or two, like memories of trips I took as a child.

Nor do I think I am the only one with this problem. Certainly, there are those who can read a book once and retain everything that was in it, but anecdotal evidence suggests that is not the case with most people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents.

So we in the forgetful majority must, I think, confront the following question: Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?…

Now, with a terrible sense of foreboding, I slowly turn to look again at my bookshelf… And I have to ask myself, Would it have made no difference if I had never read any of them? Could I just as well have spent my time watching golf?…

06 September 2010

Alaskan summer

The other book I picked up at the Northfield library was A Night Too Dark by Dana Stabenow. I think I've been reading Stabenow's books for a couple decades. She's written more than 30. I keep reading them because most of them are set in Alaska. Kate Shugak or Liam Campbell show up in many of the books, and they are interesting characters. Besides creating interesting characters, Stabenow weaves good plots, tells good stories, writes good action scenes, and tells good jokes once in awhile.

I don't remember any jokes in A Night Too Dark, but the characters and plot are good. I never did figure out the title. I sort of expected that it might have something to do with short days and long nights of the Alaskan winter. Nope. The story takes place in the summer. Maybe it refers to the tragedy at the end. Or maybe things in Kate Shugak's future.

Oh well, the action centers on exploratory work on a potential gold mine just beyond the boundaries of a national park and native territory. Lots of new people flooding a once isolated community that welcomes the inflow of money more than the influx of people. A depressed mine worker walks off into the wilderness to return his body "to nature." A body is found. A month later, the missing guy stumbles out of the woods much the worse for wear, but very much alive.

And there are people and events as unusual and unexpected as anything in a script for Northern Exposure. It's Alaska, after all. Alaska state trooper Jim Chopin hires former PI Shugak (who is also his parmour) to help investigate. Old Sam goes fishing for salmon and hunting moose out of season. Kate's foster son Johnny gets a girlfriend and a paying job. Jim and Kate are as randy as usual.

It was fun to read. It's more chewing gum for the mind and a great summer book. Luckily, I finished it before summer was over.

Did you read A Night Too Dark? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.


When I had read the available books from West Yellowstone, I was back in Northfield heading for the public (socialist) library. The librarians have a rolling cart positioned just in front of the main desk where recently-returned books are placed before they are reshelved. I always look at the contents of that cart.

The look paid off the last time I was there, and I went no further. I plucked a new Dana Stabenow mystery and Thomas Perry's Strip from the cart, went to the automatic check out machine with my library card, and left the library. I doubt I was there more than four minutes and walked away with several hours of good reading. I'll write about the Stabenow book later, but here's to Thomas Perry.

If many mystery writers are producing episodes of TV series featuring a few main characters and a few settings, Perry is producing movies set in a variety of places and populated with characters unseen elsewhere in the world of fiction. The dust jacket informations says that Perry "is the author of the Jane Whitefield series..." Well, I might have to go look for one of those. But for now, there is a long list of non-series Thomas Perry books that I look forward to.

Strip, like Metzger's Dog and Death Benefits, is a well-told entertaining tale.

A hapless mook lucked out when robbing a strip club owner who was trying to deposit the nightly receipts from his three gentlemen's clubs. A hapless LA newcomer, who has been spening his retirmement savings trying to impress girls, gets fingered for the robbery. A hapless police lieutenant, who has simultaneous twenty-year marriages and a kid from each who is about to enroll in an expensive university, is assigned to investigate the robbery. The mook gets a girl friend/accomplice for the next late night robbery, and she excitedly shoots someone. The newcomer proves that he's not hapless. The lieutenant stumbles along trying to figure out who is doing what to whom and where will the tuition money come from. Then, a Mexican drug boss and his bodyguards are murdered.

Details? You'll have to read Strip. It's a great and complicated tale with an ending befitting O. Henry.

Have you, too, read Strip? What did you think? Write and tell this bit of the world what you think.

04 September 2010

Horses and books

One of the books Nancy bought at the Bookworm in West Yellowstone was The Bookwoman's Last Fling by John Dunning. I was about to run off to the library when she said she was busy with John McPhee's Rising from the Plains and I was welcome to read the Dunning book. Such a deal.

I've read a couple of Dunning's books before and they've been entrancing. The books are about the adventures of ex-Denver cop turned rare book dealer Cliff Janeway. This one adds a little Dick Francis flavor because Janeway takes up scut work at a couple racetracks in order to find out who had stolen some treasures from an incredible book collection. Oh, and whether the books' owner had been killed some twenty years earlier.

Along the way there's the matter of a middle-age romance between Janeway and his lawyer girlfriend. And the ex-cop's hankering for a return to investigative action and away from the cerebral book business.

There are some good guys, some bad guys, and some nuts, and lots of horses, and red herrings. But the story moves along and it's interesting right to the end. It was not a book that I felt I had to read quickly (like the Stieg Larsson books). I read The Bookwoman's Last Fling methodically, and that's perhaps how the story was told. In the tropical days at the end of August when we were all hiding in the air conditioning from the heat and humidity, it was a good book to read.

Have you read The Bookwoman's Last Fling? What did you think? Write, and tell this little bit of the world what you think.