Wednesday, February 23, 2005

12. The Bug by Ellen Ulman

The Bug book pictureMy brother-in-law gave this to my dad for xmas, who read it and gave it back to him, who then read it and gave it to me. It is the story of a tech firm in the mid-80's, a programmer who becomes obsessed with a bug and the QA tester who first finds it. I have to admit that I was pretty sucked into the narrative. I read the book in a couple of days. It has two threads going on, a technical mystery about the source of the bug and two personal stories about the respective relationships (and their unravelling) of the two main characters. The programmer is often not very sympathetic and his descent into depression is frustrating because you feel that he's a bit too isolated. However, the rest of it rings very true. It portrays the corporate culture of that time (which really was the genesis of the dotcom boom) convincingly. And the other human relationships are quite compelling as well. Ultimately, though, it's the story of the bug itself that drew me in. You want to find out what caused it and the conclusion is satisfying, and goes a bit deeper, presenting an interesting theme on the relationship between humans and machines.

This is an interesting book, because it definitely has a chick side, spending a lot of time on people's feelings and relationships. But it also has lots of semi-hard technical passages which the guys will love. I'd recommend it.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

11. Hang Dead Hawaiian Style by Patrick Morgan

Hang Dead Hawaiian Style book pictureThis is the first in a series of surf spy pulp novels called Operation Hang Ten. They came out in the sixties and feature Bill Cartwright, surfing detective and ladies man. The first one I read had him hunting down a busload of hippies who were selling drugs to schoolkids (I kid you not). It got me hooked on the series. Hang Dead Hawaiian Style is a bit of a mess, but a fun read. He works for the man (he's hired by the CIA as a freelancer), but the whole time he's spouting anti-establishment rants like a watered down John D. McDonald. The rants are actually not badly written and the action is pretty aggressive, entertaining stuff, but the plot is terribly constructed. The second-to-main badguy is a doctor selling opium to the beach bums. He goes on and on about how removed he is from it because he's hired this dude to do all the transactions (a tough surfer with whom Cartwright has a surfing battle with) for him. But he also takes the girls home that he's got hooked and molests them for payment. And it took Cartwright chapters to figure out what was going on. I'm going to keep collecting the series, though.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

10. Fugue for a Darkening Planet by Christopher Priest

Fugue for a Darkening Planet book pictureThis is another obscure post-holocaust dug up by master bouqiniste Lantzvillager and man this one is dark! The basic premise is that a nuclear war in Africa sends millions of immigrants flooding to the rest of the world. They hit England the hardest, where they come up against a newly elected and badly organized racist administration. It was written in the '70's so the initial response by the government seems unrealistic. Basically, the refugees boats aren't stopped and they end up swarming the land, taking over peoples houses and turning the nation into chaos.

The story is told from one man's point of view. Though it is written in the first person, it's extremely objective, almost cold as if he's watching over himself like a scientist. The structure of the book is interesting too, with no chapters, just brief sections divided by an asterisk, jumping around between 4 different narrative threads of time: the guy's life growing up, his deteriorating marriage, his flight from his suburban home with his wife and daugher and his lone travels after they are abducted from him. These are quite well woven around, so that it doesn't get confusing and you are driven forward to find out what happens.

This book presents a very pessimistic view of mankind. The island becomes divided roughly into four groups, the organized Afrim army, who seem to be supplied with weapons by the soviets, the official british army, who is trying to regain control, a renegade british army who is sympathetic to the african refugees, nationalist troops who are racist and all the refugees, now english and african. It's quite a mess as you can see and the atrocities are realistic and disturbing. Ultimately, the main character, who begins as a liberal-minded professor must slowly confront the feelings of anger and fear that are changing his behaviour.

The british are good at this sort of stuff. Like War of the Worlds, Fugue describes small details that give the reader a real sense of the breakdown of society. It makes you feel scared to have loved ones. A quick and absorbing read, I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

9. The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

The Space Merchants book pictureMy dad loves this book and I had read it a long time ago and thought it was okay. This time, I understand much better why he is so appreciative of it. It's a scathing attack on consumerism and I might have to say the most accurate prediction, in terms of social structures, of a dystopic future that I've read. The planet is overpopulated, run by giant mega-corporations. Most people are workers either blue or white collar, and basically trapped in a cycle of consumption and labor. They work to get the money to buy the useless things to which they are either addicted or so deeply brainwashed by constant advertising that they cannot do without. There are a few elites, who struggle hard to stay on top and keep the system in place.

It doesn't sound so original today, but the way it is described really spot on. A lot of the actual advertising techniques seem unsophisticated and you can tell that the book was written in the '50s. But the motivation behind it and the basic assumption that a world of endless cyclical consumption constructed on a fantasy of capitalistic renewal is incredibly powerful. The only political conflict comes from the Consies, ecological conservatives who are portrayed as a fringe group of total maniacs. The storyline and the way the actual conflicts of the narrative move forward are less engaging than the actual description of the society. But I strongly encourage everyone to read this book, at the very least to get a gander at Chicken Little.

We're fucked!