Category: Reading

The Hunt for Vulcan – Thomas Levenson

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Another very exciting development in the world of The Warbler: I had the privilege of reading (and now reviewing) a book from Random House (!) thanks to this whole “building a brand” nonsense I’ve been trying to do. Learning about the options available to independent book reviewers has been exciting and illuminating. Publishers want books read and reviewed. I want to read and review books. It’s a wonderful match. But let’s stop talking about talking about books, and get to the talking about books, shall we?

Outside of speculative fiction, I best like reading books on science designed for laypeople. Many (if not most) books like this focus on successes of science. On discoveries that change the world, and a glimpse at the far-reaching ramifications they may have had.

Not so with Vulcan.

The Hunt for Vulcan tells a tale — and a tale it is — of hubris, ego, and failure. Of desperation and curiosity. Of a world rapt in the excitement of discovering the new. Leveson expresses that excitement in such a way that I was electrified with it. He makes statements that capture the heart of the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the fallibility of those who engage in that pursuit: us.

“At first blush, this may seem something of a burlesque, a tale of nineteenth-century astronomical follies, Victorian gentlemen chasing a mistake. But there’s more here than a comedy of errors. The story of Vulcan suggests something much deeper, something that gets to the heard of the way science really advances…”

That something deeper? The simple notion that in the search for truth, we make mistake after mistake until a definitive result appears. Once we achieve that result, we look out from our updated view of the real and begin the process again.

In the case of The Hunt for Vulcan, the subject is a planet that never existed—Vulcan—save for in the minds of astronomers and mathematicians in the nineteenth century.

The book covers the history necessary to understand the Vulcan conundrum in its entirety. We learn of Sir Issac Newton, and how his mathematical formulae were able to consistently predict the positions of celestial bodies in motion, explaining the relationships between the planets. Newtonian mechanics covered, we jump ahead to issues with Saturn that plagued astronomers. It didn’t conform well enough to the math. If the math was inaccurate, what was missing?

In order to maintain the sanctity of math in the post-Newton world, a French mathematician, Le Verrier, set out to explain the error by introducing a new planet to the solar system before it had been observed. One that, crucially, conformed to the existing mathematical explanation of the universe. When proof of said planet was found (Neptune), Le Verrier was elevated and glorified, and the existing worldview remained intact.

But Saturn’s oddities were not the only problem in the Solar System. Mercury had a sort of wobble that perplexed scientists for centuries following the development of Newtonian mechanics. Le Verrier, now proven in the realm of discovering unseen planets using the power of mathematics, haughtily pronounced the existence of an intra-Mercurial planet. Thanks to the math, this planet had an approximate size and mass, and a predictable position in the night sky. What to do next? Name it!

Thus, the planet Vulcan was born.

“As Vulcan’s troublesome history reveals, no one gives up on a powerful, or a beautiful, or perhaps simply a familiar and useful conception of the world without utter compulsion—and a real alternative.”

But nobody found it. What’s more, it should have been much easier to spot, being between Mercury and the Sun. Think about it: a nice, big light behind it to illuminate it in the day, and a collection of recognizable landmarks (space-marks?) to guide the eye at night.

The hunt went on for years. Le Verrier, enraged, worked tirelessly to prove Vulcan’s existence. He practically tortured his staff, his inflated ego blasting any and all in its path as it was punctured. After a final failed attempt to find Vulcan, in which several astronomers were shamed (for reporting false sightings,) the lid seemed to be closed on Vulcan. Despite the fact that it had never been seen, it still hovered in the periphery of popular science, until a better explanation for Mercury’s behavior would rear its head.

Along came Albert Einstein (of personal interest to me and my family. Ask about it later, if you must), with the audacity to blow the lid off of science completely in a series of four papers which completely changed the world. Newtonian mechanics weren’t wrong. In fact, they’re still used today to get a “ballpark” for beginning physics students. Einstein simply proved that they weren’t right enough. Einstein’s tremendous triumph not only rocked the world, it destroyed Vulcan entirely. Here was math that perfectly explained the behavior of the planet, without the need for a ghost planet.

“The result emerged at the end of a chain of mathematical reasoning, the inevitable outcome of subjecting matter to number. Einstein, usually a fairly phlegmatic man, felt this one to the bone. When he completed the calculation of the orbit of Mercury and saw exactly the right number fall out of the long chain of pure reasoning, he told friends that seeing Mercuries motion fall out of his equations hit him with a physical shock.”

The Hunt for Vulcan is a wonderful book. It reads like a novel, full of tension, laughs, and drama, with a cast of characters that seem almost unreal. At the core of it all rests the beauty that it is real, and by the heroic efforts of those researchers, even when they were wrong, we know more about our magnificent universe. Levenson captures the thrill of the chase, the thirst for knowledge, and the unstoppable force that is scientific truth, in a way that is relatable and eminently enjoyable.

“Science is unique among human ways of knowing because it is self-correcting. Every claim is provisional, which is to say each is incomplete in some small or, occasionally, truly consequential way. But in the midst of the fray, it is impossible to be sure what any gap between knowledge and nature might mean.”

 

 

Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle: Book One

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A few months back, it seemed the literati were unable to focus on anything but this Norwegian author who, supposedly, had written something truly spectacular. I’d heard these whispers—read them, to be precise—all over the book-loving web, but didn’t pay much attention to them. Finally, my dad handed me a copy of the New York Times Magazine containing an article—no, a story—written by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the aforementioned Norwegian.

That story, My Saga (part Ipart II ) provides the perfect entry into Knausgaard’s world. I highly recommend reading it, regardless of whether or not you decide to embark on the larger Knausgaard journey.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing is unlike anything I’ve read before. He has a remarkable ability to express profound notions with simple language. He writes sentences that slam their way into your psyche. Even in My Saga, there were moments when I had to reread a sentence or twoa few times just to absorb its full impact. For example:

“I never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within. When times got rough, a person could abandon one town in favor of another, and that new town would still represent the same thing.”

When my dad started reading the first book in Knausgaard’s six-part autobiographical journey, My Struggle, he told me that I had to start reading it right away. Fortunately, a friend had a copy of the book and lent it to me. From the first page, I was completely hooked.

When you sit down and open My Struggle, you are transported, and find yourself on a minimalist sofa in a sparse apartment, feeling the cool leather against your back through your shirt, and watching the seasons pass too quickly through the large window behind Karl Ove, who is pacing the room before you. The only light in the room comes from streetlights and neons shining through the window, reflecting off of the wet facades and tarmac of the road outside. It is always night in telling of My Struggle, the deepest part of night, which Knausgaard claims is the only time when all is truly at rest. You hear the clinking of ice cubes in his glass, smell the peaty scotch or the hoppy beer he drinks before switching to coffee. Cigarette smoke curls from his mouth and his nostrils and he takes you into his mind, piercing you to the sofa with his bright blue eyes, behind which rests a shattered soul. He observes the world from a distance, though he is within it the entire time, seemingly against his will. Karl Ove, for you feel you can call him that, talks to you about whatever is passing through his mind. He treats all thoughts with equanimity, and allows himself the pleasure of following tangents as long as he needs to find completion. He is observant in an almost inhuman way, with a memory like none I’ve ever encountered. How could I possibly remember what the girl who sat next to me on the bus on my first day of elementary school in Israel smelled like? Somehow, Karl Ove does remembers those things. He also remembers passers by, structures, odd visual stimuli, and more. He remembers these things because they all participate equally in his mind when recalling a moment in his past.

To quote a friend: “He makes the mundane transcendent, somehow.”

He is a master of subtle prose, and punctuates his writing with meanderings that are regularly profound and, seemingly against all odds, remain relevant. For instance, the opening of the book deals in death, but the concept is left aside after a few pages, whereupon it transitions to discussions of early life and family. The “death” theme is suddenly picked up some two hundred pages later, and the reader immediately draws the parallel without skipping a beat. Beyond its content, the book is an enormously impressive demonstration of the art of writing.

At times, My Struggle is difficult to read. But it is always riveting. This is a must-read, and I eagerly awaiting diving into part two soon.

Updraft – Fran Wilde

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Well, this book was absolutely wonderful. It also happens to be the first “galley” I received from Tor/Forge (which is unbelievable, and feels like the greatest achievement of this website) through NetGalley. So, thanks NetGalley and Tor!

If Fran Wilde’s debut novel is any indication of what’s to come from her, she’s going to have a prominent space on the bookshelves in my home. Updraft is fantastic. The setting is rich, interesting, and mysterious, and is as much a character as the (well-written) characters in Updraft, the unfolding mystery of which plays a pivotal role in the story, though much is left to the imagination,.

Updraft takes place in a city the sky, built of impossibly large towers, grown of living bone. The humans living there have long forgotten — or perhaps never even knew — the world beneath the clouds. Their society is governed by a complex set of Laws — which are part of the oral history and education of children, — which, when broken, are punishable by the administration of weighted bone plaques. Why weighted plaques? The lives (and livelihoods) of the people are made and broken by their ability to fly, using sophisticated personal flying contraptions (think hang gliders crossed with squirrel suits).

Flying is described beautifully in Updraft. You can almost feel the gusts of wind rushing by you, see the drafts before you, and hear the whistles of your companions besides you as you ride the winds. The skies aren’t completely safe, however. Tremendous, mostly-invisible beasts called Skymouths terrorize the towers from time to time, and can only be stopped by the Singers, a mysterious group that is equal parts police force and spiritual guide.

And then, alongside Kirit, the protagonist, our wings are taken from us and we are transported into the Spire, the mysterious tower at the center of the city that plays home to the Singers. Her wings clipped, she must learn the ways of the Singers to regain command of the skies.

I don’t want to give any of this one away, since I found it so fun to read, but there’s action, mystery, and excitement to be had in reading Updraft. Fran Wilde brings the world to life with spectacular clarity and detail, and tells a story that is wonderfully paced and satisfying through and through. An altogether excellent, highly-recommended read.

9.17.15 update:

The kind folks at Audible saw this review and sent over this sample from the audiobook version of Updraft. The reader gives Kirit pretty much exactly the voice I imagined for her. It’s a strong voice, and confident. Give the sample a listen below, and if you enjoyed it, consider downloading it.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

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There are occasions when a book grips you by the skull and demands that you ingest it whole, unhinging your mind’s jaw, if need be, and shoving the whole thing in there without pausing for breath.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is kind of like that.

Let’s go over its reception. It won the Hugo and Nebula for best novel, the Arthur C. Clarke award, the BSFA Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and the Kitschies Golden Tentacle for Best Debut Novel. The more I heard about it, the more intriguing I found it, but never got around to reading it, even when a friend came over and left it on my dinner table about eight months ago.

I finally picked it up for my e-reader in July, long after giving the paper copy back and relocating to California, and that’s when it sank its hooks in me and demanded my full attention.

It is spectacularly well written, and Leckie manages to insert the reader behind the eyes of a being utterly foreign to human experience, while managing to express a sympathetic, relatable, and complex character. The universe of the Radch is one of tremendous depth, sometimes reminiscent of other space operas (in terms of Colonial Space Empire Colonizing Tropes, Space Empires Viewing Themselves as Civilized While Other Planets Are Savage Tropes, and certain Space Military Tropes. Truth be told, I think they’re tropes because, left to our own devices, it’s pretty much how we’d act in a far-future spacefaring situation), but we are never walked down the pages of an encyclopedia as the characters have to acclimatize the reader to the universe. We’re simply thrust into the middle of multiple timelines with disparate circumstances for our protagonist, and we thirstily wonder how one situation became the other, and how the character finds itself in dire straits.

You’ve noticed that I am not using gender pronouns to describe the protagonist. There are two reasons for this. The first is because they (and no, that’s not improper grammar) are a sentient spaceship, named The Justice of Toren, who is simultaneously a spaceship and the many thousand Ancillary soldiers that it can control simultaneously. This leads to some great passages that jump location and perspective sentence-to-sentence, which were initially jarring, but eventually felt completely natural. The Ancillaries are human bodies (read: corpses) linked to the consciousness of Toren, and the way they’re viewed by the rest of society leads to some interesting conundrums, both for Toren and the people who interact with them/it.

The second reason is that the language of the Radchaai empire does not use gender-specific pronouns, and defaults to the female. Everyone is described as “she” and “her” until the reader can infer gender by context. It made for a unique reading experience, and I realized that it’s very easy to slip into heteronormative expectations for characters, even in fantastical settings. This book brought a refreshing perspective to the fore, and while I may not employ similar methods in my own writing, I think there’s much that can be learned from Leckie’s approach.

The mystery of the event gap between timelines sustains the novel for about two-thirds of its length, and once the answer is provided, the present timeline continues and the action and pacing pick up, leading to a spectacular and explosive ending. Some of the twists and turns were expected and satisfying, and some came out of left field and had me grinning when they were revealed.

Ancillary Justice was a fantastic read. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Ancillary Sword, as soon as I can.

The Monstrous – Ellen Datlow

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I have to admit to some trepidation when I first received this collection of short stories in the mail from Tachyon. Granted, I asked for this book, but I was still wary of the genre. You see, I had read almost no horror fiction prior to this collection. I respond very viscerally to frightening visual media, regardless of if it’s gory, psychologically thrilling, or suspenseful. I assumed that reading horror would prove an analogous experience.

I am so glad I read this anthology.

Ellen Datlow has an remarkable CV. A sci-fi, fantasy, and short fiction editor of 30+ years, she is considered one of the best (if not the best) horror editors in the business. Among other awards, she’s won Hugos, Stokers, Locuses, Horror Guild awards, and a lifetime achievement award from the Horror Writers association. She’s pretty serious about horror fiction.

The Monstrous was an excellent introduction to Horror, as the collection of shorts runs the gamut from the more “classic” horror tale (as I imagine it) involving supernatural monstrosities, to the subtler, psychologically horrifying, to the straight-up gruesome stuff that makes you ill as you read it. Somehow, you can’t turn away.

Some of the stories stuck out more than others:

  • “Giants in the Earth” — What impressed me most about this story was how, despite the limiting setting (a mineshaft), I felt like the world was much bigger in the periphery. Not only that, but the supernatural element was chilling and fascinating. I could have read so much more of this world, but was very happy to be left wanting more.
  • “Ashputtle” — A memorable story, and excellent exercise in the terror of the unmentioned. The unspeakable acts committed by the protagonist are never directly mentioned, but an image builds alongside the (equally visceral and gut-punching) acknowledged ills.
  • “Jenny Come to Play” — I happened to be reading this while a friend was watching the first season of True Detective. Magnificent story, chilling read, action-packed conclusion. Simply excellent.

Honestly, every story in this anthology is excellent. It’s really a testament to Datlow’s wealth of experience in the genre, and her masterful touch in editing and compiling the best stories around. What’s more, I was inspired by this collection, remembering that several shorts I had begun writing felt like they were going nowhere. After reading The Monstrous, I realized they are perfect setups for horror. I am invigorated and excited by this foray into a new genre.

I devoured this anthology, and was immediately hungry for more. I guess I’ll go pick up my Lovecraft collection.

Shades of Milk and Honey – Mary Robinette Kowal

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As a fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, I felt it was incumbent upon me to branch out beyond Brandon Sanderson, and the Shadows Beneath anthology provided ample opportunity to read the writings of the rest of the crew: Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler.

Kowal’s story in that anthology, A Fire in the Heavens, is wonderful, fascinating, and original. Really, you’ve got to read it. A tremendous story. Anyway, between that, her work on Writing Excuses, and The Lady Astronaut of Mars (another short of hers I fell in love with), I knew I had to read her series, the Glamourist Histories. That series has a straightforward elevator pitch: Jane Austen with magic.

So when she tweeted that Shades of Milk and Honey, the first book in the Glamourist Histories, was available for Kindle for $1.99, I jumped into it right away.

I had never read any regency romances, but did have a childhood steeped in British costume dramas, I slipped into the setting with ease. In all fairness, that’s probably due to Kowal’s facility with making her reader comfortable in a milieu, be it Mars, a tidally-locked planet, or regency England, in the home of Jane Ellsworth, a young lady of “un-marriageable” quality save for her prodigious skill as a Glamourist.

This is my favorite element of Kowal’s world: there’s magic, yes, but the magic is almost passive. It’s called Glamour, and its purpose (at least as defined in 99% of Shades of Milk and Honey,) is aesthetic. It is the art of reaching into the ether and manipulating strands of whatever etheric energy lay therein to generate sensory experiences, or to enhance existing experiences. It’s practiced like any of the other arts, like music and painting, and the social benefits and challenges associated with those artistic skills extend neatly to the practice of Glamour.

Here’s the thing: I loved reading Shades of Milk and Honey for a number of reasons. The writing was great — it took a bit to get used to the different spellings and stilted, awkward interactions of the characters, which were absolutely necessary and well executed — the action, such as it was, was entertaining and sufficiently dramatic, and the characters were dynamic and largely likable, if often frustrating. I found myself rooting for Jane from the first page.

The real reason I loved this book, though, was the magic. In so much of genre fiction (Sci-Fi and Fantasy), the magic (or technology) is active, in that it is either the prime mover, or the core of the story, or it’s the mystery that needs to be solved, and it’s somehow destructive or creative. In Shades, we experience a magic that is purely illusion, and used as casual entertainment for the characters. In many ways, the story is driven by the magic, but it is never about the magic.

It was a breath of fresh air, and gave me some food for thought regarding my own attempts at writing genre fiction. I want exciting, vibrant, beautiful magic, as do many other writers and readers. The catch is to not let it completely dictate the course of your story. Reading this novel gave me a great idea for a writing prompt: take a look at your magic, whatever it may be, and take the fangs off of it. Don’t necessarily make it powerless, but see what happens when it’s not all there is to your world.

Thanks, Mary, for the excellent read. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

The Battle for Oz – Jeyna Grace

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Imagine, if you will, a linear accelerator for fiction. Say someone took The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, put them in the machine, and slammed ‘em together. Sifting through the results, you’d find The Battle For Oz, Jeyna Grace’s exciting adventure published by Inkshares. The novella is a quick read, and is helped along by swift pacing and simple description that relies on a (perhaps faded) recollection of worlds you remember from your childhood. There’s a certain shock factor to the brutality and gore that appears now and again in the story, reminding you that this is not a children’s fairy tale, replete with fairies though it may be.

That vicious Queen of Hearts, down but not entirely out after her altercation with Alice, sets her sights on a new conquest: Oz. She breeds horrifying monsters and uses them to take over the Emerald City, enforcing with a cruel hand, and crushing her opposition utterly. In an act of desperation, Dorothy, now in her late teens, is summoned to save the day. Dorothy finds she can’t fight this foe alone, though. She needs help from someone experienced with fighting the Red Queen.

In The Battle for Oz, the characters we remember from the original fairy tales have all been given some upgrades: they’re weaponized. Lion is a general, Scarecrow is a Wizard, Hatter’s got a magic hat of some kind, the list goes on. These fighters clash in an epic battle, culminating in the (supposed) defeat of the Red Queen. Everything in its right place.

Except

The epilogue offered up an interesting morsel which left me much more interested in a sequel than I’d have been otherwise. After the battle ends, the epilogue indicates that the vile Red Queen finds herself in Germany around 1938. That’s a story I’d be interested in reading.

The Battle for Oz will be available in ebook and print in September.

The Sword of Shannara – Terry Brooks

Sword_of_shannara_hardcover The book of many tropes lumbered adverbially through its mire of repeating words, and languished in its easy use of one female character whose strength was in her utter obedience. As the Lord of the Rings fanfic slogged on, an adjectival thought bubbled descriptively to the surface, where its oily film reflected murky rainbows upon the backs of my eyelids, and with its final, shuddering death-throes, fizzled and threw its final cliché, weakly, at the already covered wall of my mind.

A harsh opening, to be sure, but man was this an uninteresting listen. The reader was skilled, but there was very little substance to the story. There’s some mildly intriguing world building — long after the bombs, presumably, radiation created elves, gnomes, trolls, and magic — but it falls flat in the face of a seemingly endless cavalcade of tropes and cliches.

A mysterious wizard shows up, and informs a wee lad that he must save the world from a grand evil. His trusting, somewhat imbecilic companion/brother joins him and they narrowly escape death at the hands of the nefarious dude’s scary dark lackey, then go through a forest and fight a large octopus-type monster near a cliffside, hoping to enter a mine. Then, an assembly of the good races takes place wherein it is decided that the crew will help the boy find the artifact that will allow him to defeat evil. They go to a scary place overrun with bad small guys, and the wizard falls into flame, fighting a large scary monster.

Etcetera, etcetera.

There were a few moments in Shannara where I felt genuine enjoyment, but they were too few and far between for me to want to read any more of the series. It just so happens that MTV (I believe) is picking up Shannara, and the trailer I saw made the book seem quite a bit more exciting. I noticed 5 times more female characters in the trailer than in the book, which contains literally one.

I really don’t have much to say about this book. It was a real disappointment, especially considering how much incredible reading I’ve been doing lately. They can’t all be hits though. Fortunately for you, dear reader, the next few books I’ll be reviewing were great.

Don’t bother with this one. If you want some epic “classic” fantasy, start with Eye of the World, and read the incredible 14-book Wheel of Time series over a year or so.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter – Michael Swanwick

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When he left his job, my old manager bequeathed to each of his subordinates a token by which to remember him. Though we’d only known each other for a few weeks, we managed to connect over various extracurricular interests, including (but certainly not limited to) video games and genre fiction. To my delight, not only was he steeped in fantasy and sci-fi, but he was practically a guru of the stuff. His gift to me was Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, along with a card declaiming it as his all-time favorite sci-fi/fantasy book. In the card, he wrote that his hope was that I’d fall in love with it the same way he had. I didn’t exactly fall in love with it, but it is definitely a read I won’t soon forget.

Michael Swanwick has a way with words that completely transports you into his world. His writing hints at the poetry of Tolkein, but mixed with about 10,000 parts grittiness which leaves the taste of rust and blood in your mouth. Passages like the following, which describes the crow-like creatures whose nests Jane — the protagonist — stumbles upon in the course of some routine torture during her awful childhood.

“The toads had scattered when she first emerged from the window. They fluttered in agitation not far off, their black-feathered wings beating hysterically. They were loathsome things, the miscegenated get of jackdaws  upon their lustful batrachian dams, and like their sires they were notorious thieves.”

There’s a certain intensity to everything he writes, and as the plot gets grittier and farther out, the intensity only grows. And the core of the story is in itself rather intense. We follow Jane, a changeling human girl, through her life in the land of fey, which isn’t quite as sunlit and beautiful as other tales of fairies and pixies make it out to be. Swanwick’s fey is a land of technological development, drug abuse, magic, intolerance, violence, lust, greed, and vicious cruelty. It is populated by the full gamut of fantastical creatures, twisted to fit into bureaucracies, factories, high schools, malls, and more. At the start of the story, we are with Jane as she and a cadre of children work in a factory that produces intelligent mechanical dragons that are, in essence, fighter jets that can talk. Catastrophe after catastrophe follow her, and her friendships — such as they are — go up in flames, while the story as a whole seems to grow less and less coherent.

Then, over the last eighty-or-so pages, the thing slams into place, and you’re racing alongside the story, completely swept up in the action, as Jane and her dragon companion catapult themselves at the core of existence, in the hopes of destroying it altogether. It seems to come out of left field, but Swanwick ties together subtle breadcrumbs that substantiate the action, and just when you feel satisfied that you (kind of) understand what’s going on, the last six pages turn the whole story upside-down. When I finished the book, I put it on the table in front of me, then stared at it a while, and resisted the temptation to pick it up and start at the beginning to see what I could learn from an immediate re-read. I’ll definitely read this book again, some day.

I may not have fallen in love with it, but I can’t deny that it had an impact on me. After reading books like this, “classic” fantasy tropes begin to feel a bit bland. Expect more on that particular (lack of) flavor in a future review.

Dawn of the Algorithm – Yann Rousselot

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After reviewing Gary Whitta’s Abomination for Inkshares, I stayed in touch with them, hoping that they’d send some more awesome work my way.

Inkshares’ own Angela Melamud fired back almost immediately, asking if I’d be interested in reviewing a book of poetry. I clicked the link to the book’s page, read a little about the book, and watched the short promotional video thereupon. Spliced clips from Akira — one of my all-time favorite films — with the poet reading his own Akira-inspired piece over them. Even though I felt (and still feel) unprepared to review a book of poetry, I accepted Angela’s offer, and started reading Yann Rousselot’s Dawn of the Algorithm that evening.

That was four months ago. I finished the last poem today, standing in an overpacked train car, in a tunnel under the bay, as it hurtled along the tracks on its way to San Francisco.

I am an amateur at best when it comes to the appreciation of poetry. I like it, but have never been able to articulate what mechanisms in a poem affect me, regardless of how that effect manifests. I simply do not have the tools. In college, I read some poetry from the Golden Age of Spain. It made me feel a bit dumb, and I struggled spectacularly when the time came to discuss the work.

So I took my time with Yann’s poems, and am grateful that they deal in material that is near to my heart. In his own words, Dawn of the Algorithm is: “…[A] poetry collection about the end of the world. It’s about giants, robots, aliens and dinosaurs; disasters, catastrophes and spectacular cataclysms. By analogy, it is also about rupture: thermo-apocalypses that spark when you throw together love, longing, friendship and loss – what some might call the dark side of human experience.”

As a fan of science fiction, fantasy, video games, and aliens (all of which I’ve Warbled about at some point,) and a penchant for melancholy, these pieces were made for me.

The poems in Dawn of the Algorithm are the product of a person with obvious intellect and emotional depth. Many of Yann’s poems harken back to games and science fiction from the 80s and 90s, but are just as likely to reference current nerd culture.

Here is where the struggle starts. This marks the sixteenth time I have typed, deleted, and retyped some commentary about the poems. I’m looking at the table of contents, neatly divided into four sections, and the names of the poems I found particularly good are jumping out at me. Let’s go with that.

While I thought that post-human neo-tokyo — the one with the Akira references — would be my favorite of the poems, I was caught off guard by ugly bags of mostly water, the final poem in the first section, The Art of Destruction. It reminded me in some ways of one of my favorite vignettes in The Illustrated Man, wherein post-human spheres of light school missionaries on Mars on enlightenment. Not because the content is the same, of course, but because of the emotions and visions conjured by the powerful language. Some of the lines that moved me most, for your reading pleasure:

“that which you call skin—

a threadbare term to describe where i stop and others begin—

a terran distinction—i am we are in a supercritical fluid state—“

And,

“i long for home—

gravity the unbreakable shackle to this planet–

a curse alike to sentience and skin—

skin the unbreakable shackle to the thing you call body—

your gift to me—i curse you and your words that make the world—

all of you—ugly bags of mostly water—“

ugly bags of mostly water is one of the farthest-out pieces in the book, and it moved me to the point where I read it six times in a row before closing the book, then my eyes, and laying back, to think about it a while. It is decidedly sci-fi, completely alien, and remarkably human. This is where the book sank its hooks in me.

In truth, this wasn’t a book I could read cover-to-cover in a few days, as I’m wont to doing with many of the books about which I warble. I needed breaks. I needed to reread. I needed to look at the illustrations, some of which are quite great.

A thing that brought out a chuckle was the final section, Love in the Time of Ebola. Having just finished (and greatly misliked) Love in the Time of Cholera, I wondered it there may be something of a redemption in store for me. I found two poems in the section, El-Ahrairah and Insert Coin to be particularly good, and encourage you to read them when you pick up Dawn of the Algorithm from Inkshares, which I highly encourage you to do.

Sometimes, the poems are funny. Elsewhere, they’re laments for the complexities of love. They frequently dabble in the absurd. Mostly, they feel real. They feel like a writer with passion sat down and did what Hemingway talked about: bled onto the page.