crap i have read recently #17

More stuff from the Humble Book Bundles…possibly some SPOILERS!

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red giantMachine of Death (Various, 2010):  I’d be  hard pressed to describe this book any better than its website does, so here goes:  “The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper up on which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN…The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.”  (See more at: http://machineofdeath.net/about)

This is essentially a crowd-sourced book, based on an idea tossed out in Dinosaur Comics a few years ago.   For three or four months in 2007 the editors invited basically everyone in the world to submit stories based on this idea and apparently hundreds of them did.  The stories that ended up in the finished book were selected from these submissions and the book itself finally made it to print in 2010 when the editors decided to self-publish it.   After a little word of mouth the book hit #1 on Amazon (is that hard to do?  I don’t even know…), beating out Glenn Beck’s book (heh).   Nowadays this little gem is available in damn near any format you want it; paper, various flavors of e-book, PDF.  It’s available under a Creative Commons license and can be freely downloaded and shared.  And that, I suppose, is how it made its way into the Humble Book Bundle.

Does it work?  Well…most of the time yes and some of the time no.  Very few of the authors are “established” writers (a few are) but nearly all the stories are nicely crafted.   Each story is titled with a cause of death, ranging from the mundane (SUICIDE, CANCER) to the lyrical (NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING, WHILE TRYING TO SAVE ANOTHER).  Surprisingly few of them go for surprise twists and most them don’t even exploit the expected twist inherent in the setup, that of a seemingly mundane cause of death turning out to be complicated.  A few play the scenario for laughs; most go for pathos at one level or another.   What is impressive is the range of approaches that the authors take.  Some of the stories are very clever and some are very sad.   Most of the stories explore the implications of knowing (sort of) HOW you will die without also knowing WHEN and the effects this will have on people and on society.    There is the father consumed by relief when his 16 year old daughter’s slip informs them she will die of MILLENIUM SPACE ENTROPY, the salesman delighted that he will be TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS, the parents trying to get their son, who will die in a PRISON KNIFE FIGHT, into a good school, the soldier who will be SHOT BY A SNIPER running into enemy territory to rescue a squad mate.  The best of the stories show us how any of us, even living under the sword of a known and ineluctable fate, still have a lot of room for personal choice.  It’s a fun read with lots of food for thought.  After all, what would you do with this information?

Score:  Meh.

Spin (Robert Charles Wilson, 2006):  I’ll just preface this review by noting that I got halfway through this book thinking it was written by Robert Anton Wilson and being amazed that it wasn’t the usual dated and pretentious blather.  I was expecting an entirely different book than the one I got and that is a good thing.

One night a twelve year old boy named Tyler Dupree stands in his back yard and watches as the stars disappear.  His two friends, fourteen year old twins Jason and Diane Lawton, witness the event with him.  A black membrane has been wrapped around the entire planet, by entities unknown and for reasons unknown, and it comes to be knows as the “spin membrane” and its manufacturers as the Hypotheticals.  An artificial sun mimics normal day and night cycles.   Soon enough humanity learns that spaceships can cross the membrane and after a series of exploratory runs they learn that time is passing much, much faster on the outer side of the membrane, so much so that the Earth has only a few decades before it becomes uninhabitable due to the expansion of an elderly Sun.   The race is on for humanity to try and find a way to either stop the process or escape Earth.   The difference in the passage of time allows for some incredibly large scale projects, such as terraforming Mars to create a place for humanity to colonize and the seeding of the galaxy with nanobot networks in an effort to find other planets with spin membranes.

Much of the book alternates between present day Tyler and Diane, obviously on the run from someone and on their way somewhere dangerous, and the sequence of events that occurred after the stars blinked out.  Through these alternating story lines we learn about the three main characters and about what has happened to the world and how the world copes with it.  Diane and Jase obviously symbolize humanity’s two-fold response to any existential crisis.  Diane withdraws into millennial-style apocalyptic religions, first those espousing communitarianism and free love, then later into those actively working to bring about the end times.  Jason focuses his considerable intellect on exploring the effects of the Spin and what Earth can do about it and eventually becomes head of the primary government organization dealing with the crisis.  He is bursting with genius and completely willing to sacrifice himself for his goals.  Tyler, the main character, serves primarily as an observer and narrator of the end of the world.  He is in love with Diane and in awe of Jason, and although he becomes a doctor himself, he is never really any more than the foil off which these two play and the medium through which the siblings interact.  He grows up in the shadow of these two, never quite their equal socially (his mother is their housekeeper), intellectually, or emotionally.

Overall, the book is a good read.  Tyler is a bit of a wet noodle.  He’s never quite able to declare his love for Diane, which might have saved her from a whole lot of grief and suffering.  He’s completely pwned by Jason to the extent that he compromises his oath as a doctor and possibly national/global security to help Jason complete his projects.  In the end, the book turns out to be the prelude to sequels, and although we are handed an explanation for the Spin and the Hypotheticals, it all seems somewhat conjectural and sort of a let down.   That said, there are all kinds of interesting ideas in this book.  At what point do our descendants become no longer human, with their own priorities and motives?  How much do they owe us and how much do we owe them?  What happens when you seed the galaxy with life and intelligence you cannot control?  Which is better, heart or head?  Why is it that humanity can never respond to a crisis with the best that is within it but always falls back to war and crime and dishonesty?  Why does religion fail us so drastically even when its tenets are admirable and its goals lofty?  What will happen when the Sun dies?  What happens when something so far in the future it cannot possibly happen turns out to be happening tomorrow?

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on October 11, 2013.

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