crap i have read recently #10

sonataThere are SPOILERS below, so tread carefully!

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Pirate Cinema (Cory Doctorow):  I really wanted to like this book.   The author has enormous amounts of credibility and experience in areas relevant to my interests.  Sadly, the book just misfires on so many levels that by the end of it I was fairly convinced that some people should stick to blogging  (oh snap!).  Anyways, the plot is dirt simple.  Trent (aka Cecil B. deVil) steals movie clips off the internet so often that he gets his family’s internet cut off for a year.  His father loses his job, his mother loses access to medical care, and his brilliant sister can no longer do her school work.  So Trent runs away.  He ends up in London, gets all his stuff stolen, and meets another homeless, although slightly older, kid named Jem.  Jem invites him to come live in his squat, an abandoned bar in some rundown, drug infested neighborhood in London.  They clean the place up, leech power off the grid, beg for money in the train stations, and invite a few friends to squat with them.  Once they are all living the life of Riley, Trent gets back to his obsession with making the original films he creates using snippets of old movies made by a certain film star.  We are told his movies are brilliant and before long Trent is a hero in the “cool people doing creative things on the internet” underground.  Eventually he gets caught up in the online sampling rights movement and its attempt to change some recently instituted draconian copyright laws.  After a bit of not very bad luck he wins a huge moral victory and makes the world safe for…piracy?  I’m not sure that was Doctorow’s intended message but that is certainly what one comes away with.

Although nominally YA fiction this book’s real target audience is aging geeks worried about losing their slice of real estate on the bleeding edge.  Apparently sixteen year old runaways  living in abandoned buildings, stealing power, rummaging through dumpsters for food, and making movies for Youtube is somehow just the coolest thing ever.  So let’s break this down.  Trent is an idiot, and a selfish one at that.  Because he just can’t help himself and even though he knows the consequences, he destroys his family and then he runs away.  Now usually teenage runaways who end up in heartless metropolises don’t fare well.  Our young hero has a couple of setbacks but they are minor and after that pretty much everything in his life happens by magic.  He has a cool house, interesting friends, free internet, giant computers with huge monitors, the passwords to the secret boards on the trendiest forums, a hip girlfriend, and public adulation for his creative work.   When he gets sued free lawyers appear.  When his guilt over the shit he pulled on his family gets to be too much they graciously forgive him and let him, a sixteen year old, go back alone to London.  When they are afraid of losing the squat the owner shows up and offers to let them live there for some pittance of a rent just to have someone taking care of the place.  His girlfriend’s parents are entirely cool about the homeless, unemployed, under-aged runaway who is sleeping with their daughter.  It’s hard not take away the  message that crime actually does pay, and in spades.  It doesn’t help that all the characters are one-dimensional, the dialog is stunted, Trent’s internal monologue sounds like no sixteen year old I’ve ever known (including myself), and everything just happens too damn easily to be believable.  There’s no narrative drive, no dramatic tension.  The characters do not grow or mature; instead they are confirmed in their own sense of entitlement.  Because Trent suffers no real consequences for his choices, the reader loses any sense of what is really at stake.  It’s all just a lark.

Doctorow has something important to say here and it’s a pity it gets lost.  Copyright laws and treaties are becoming ludicrously draconian in the name of profit.   I fear, as Doctorow obviously does, the harm that ensues when corporate greed and political venality make common cause.  He has been an activist nearly his entire life and a vocal advocate for open source and online freedoms.  He puts his money where his mouth is and releases all his own work under the Creative Commons license.  Hell, I got this book in one of the Humble Indie  Bundles.   But writing an entire story around that tired trope, “information wants to be free”, resting it on the back of an uninteresting protagonist, and propelling the narrative with unbelievable coincidences only serves to dilute the message.  I suspect that Doctorow wants “Pirate Cinema” to be the “Steal This Book” of the internet generation and it holds a superficial kinship with that iconic text.   Many of the ways the kids subvert the system (dumpster diving, squatting, outsmarting surveillance cameras) are a direct homage to the  Yippie ethos and the only time the text isn’t soporific is when Doctorow describes all the clever ways you can get around DRM and cameras and the law.  But he misses something basic and essential.  No matter how naive it appears now, in its day STB was an impassioned manifesto for revolution by civil disobedience and a not at all subtle reminder that there is no moral obligation to follow corrupt laws.  Its very title subverts the system which Hoffman needed to distribute it.   It was deeply, deeply cynical and made it very clear that walking the talk would not be pleasant.   STB was not a novel, it was an instruction manual for beating the system in order to change it.  Whatever intentions he may have had Doctorow is just telling us to steal, apparently for the lulz.

Score:  Meh.

The Hydrogen Sonata (Iain Banks):  There are few things in life I await with as much anticipation as a new Culture novel.  So it pains me deeply to say this…but…this book was not all that great.    There, now I hate myself.   I will mitigate my self-loathing by noting that despite its several flaws I sat down and read this book straight through and enjoyed it.  For all its incoherence, this book, like all Culture books, is a hoot to read.

The Gzilt civilization is preparing to Sublime.  They are one of the founders of the Culture, although they did not join it.  They decided at the last minute they were too special because of all the civilizations in the known galaxies, their own religious beliefs had turned out to be entirely true.  As the time for the civilization’s mass transfer into another plane of reality approaches, well-wishers and cultural scavengers converge on the Gzilt home worlds both to pay homage and to claim the mantle of inheritor for themselves.  Twenty-four days before the event is set to happen a ship is intercepted and destroyed before it can deliver an important message and this gets the Culture’s attention.  While the Minds maneuver themselves into position to influence whatever they can, the Gzilt High Command calls Vyr Cossant up from the reserves and sends her off in search of QiRia, a man she met once long ago.  He is immensely old, older even than the Culture itself, and he may know the truth behind the Gzilt’s supposedly infallible religious texts.   All sorts of persons (I use that term generically) and events conspire to keep Vyr from meeting up with QiRia as the clock races down to the time set for the Subliming.  Unfortunately, despite the deep significance of Subliming and the apparent importance of Vyr’s mission, at the end not much really happens and I was left with something of a “so what?’ feeling.  Subliming is apparently sort of mundane.

As with most of Banks’ books there is rather a lot going on.  Vyr’s life task, which she has 24 days to accomplish before Subliming with her people, is to play straight through and without error an impossible piece of music (the Hydrogen Sonata of the title).  She lugs around an enormous and unwieldy instrument for this purpose throughout all her adventures.  A group of Minds convenes to ponder and to plot and they pattern themselves after the Interesting Times Gang from Excession.  A slimy Gzilt politician plays scavenger groups against each other in attempt to engineer an enduring legacy for himself in the Real.   A mysterious and sassy Culture Ship called the “Mistake Not…” is convinced to lend substantial material aid to Vyr; another Mind goes native and joins one of the scavenger species in its elaborate customs.  There are deceit, political shenanigans, collateral damage, Mind chatter, numerous worlds, assassinations, and lots of racing against time, all spiced with whatever oddities  Banks can throw into the mix.  (My favorite is probably the guy with 52 penises who spends his days in perpetual orgy.  Because he can.)    As always, Banks’ characterizations of the Minds are engaging and humorous and his descriptions of the many unusual species that make up the Culture and its fellow civilizations are engrossing (and sometimes actually gross).  The different worlds and space stations Vyr visits are uniquely realized.

Here’s the thing though.  The best Culture novel of all, Use of Weapons, opens with a five word sentence.  The Hydrogen Sonata’s first sentence?  Fifty one words.  The sentence that introduces its main character?  Ninety-five words long.  I had to read it four times before I could figure out what it’s saying.   Banks appears to enjoy crafting these dense introductory scenes full of terms we don’t understand, people we don’t know, and places that are obscure, and in each subsequent book they’ve gotten longer and more elaborate.   Banks is criticized some for this complexity and for dropping his readers into new worlds without much explanation but half the fun of a Culture novel is the learning experience.  It takes a few chapters for Banks to work this out of his system but once it does things move at a dizzying clip.  I spent a great deal of time going back and rereading prior sections of the book in order to figure out what is going on.  The confusing plethora of alien and Mind names, the multitude of subplots, and the underwhelming nature of the central plot end up making The Hydrogen Sonata occasionally a trying read.

Banks has been writing Culture novels for 25 years now and The Hydrogen Sonata is the tenth in the series.  I truly and deeply hope he keeps them coming for another 25 years.  I will, with pleasure, read every single one of them.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on January 9, 2013.

2 Responses to “crap i have read recently #10”

  1. Just finished The Hydrogen Sonata today. My complaint for the book is that Banks takes 500 pages to reveal a minor footnote to the Culture’s history that does not change the story’s ending. I did appreciate learning more about the process of subliming though, and I am looking forward to the next Culture book.

  2. I felt the same exact way you did about Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema. I was sorely disappointed. I’ve been a huge fan of his over years, read nearly everything he’s written, and most of it is really, really good. Yes, I had high expectations for Pirate Cinema, but it was like he just phoned it in. it was overly preachy, none of the characters felt real, and it was just uggghh, yuck. However, if you are willing to give Doctorow another try, I highly suggest his Makers.

    i skimmed over your Hydrogen Sonata review, because I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve only read 2 Culture novels and have fallen absolutely in love with the Culture! I will get to Hydrogen Sonata eventually.

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