So there I was at the Loud Beach.
The speakers glared down from the top of the cliff like something out of William Hope Hodgson. The Things that Oontz.
“This Is Fun!” they seemed to bellow at the sun-burned shamblers on the sand below. “This Is Pleasure! You Enjoy Yourselves! Oontz…oontz…oontz.”
And actually, I was enjoying myself. I’d been to this particular beach before, and I had brought earplugs. And a book.
Now, I didn’t spend my whole time at the Loud Beach with my hearing blocked, buried in a book. I did swim. I took the kids out on some rocks outside of the Cone of Noise and we saw a shrimp. But, yes, what’s really important is that book.
Imagine me there under the umbrella in my highlighter-colored UV protection shirt, some kind of over-priced meatball in one hand and plugs in both my ears, staring into the depths of my kindle. I was doing something important. I was finishing a story.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one. An anglophone moves to a foreign country, where he gets married, has a kid, and gets cancer. Now he has to plan for how his family will go on after his death, but he’s crippled by the mind-your-own-business standoffishness that he’s erected between himself and his neighbors and in-laws.
If you said, “Aha, you’re talking about Zendegi by Greg Egan,” you’re right. And if you said, “you’re identifying too much with that book, Dan,” you would also be right.
I first tried to read Zendegi several years ago, around Christmas. Actually I listened to it as an audiobook, which was even more dangerous. I remember setting the table for a party with Pavlina’s employees, thinking “oh this poor guy, he’s just like me.” And then suddenly I was so depressed I couldn’t function. I just sat there the whole dinner, staring into space. Pavlina says she was telling herself all sorts of bad stories about what was going on with me. When I got a chance, I told her I’d been triggered by this book.
Zendegi wasn’t the only one. There are books that made me lose sleep, or set me on a week of tooth-gnashing. Often, afterward, I couldn’t read anything else by that author, and as time went on, the number of books I could read shrank. You might notice that I’ve managed to finish very few books published after 2015. My window of tolerance seemed ever-narrower.
What better time than summer vacation to tackle that problem? What better place than the beach? I’d worked a lot on myself, and now it was time to test my new limits. At least as far as reading went.
Zendegi was the third such stress-test. I finished it! I even enjoyed it. As for the other books, they’re in the reviews below. See if you can guess which two they are 😉
Now, it’s not all cake and champagne. The following week, I got triggered by a series of philosophy lectures (of all things). But even there, I think I’m better than I used to be. I recognized what was happening and wrote about it in my notebook. I tried to draw a line between what was just bad, and what specifically pressed my buttons. I talked with friends about it, and the result was a very deep and generous conversation. And I stopped listening to those lectures because I’d had enough mental exercise for one summer.
In other news
Tales from Alternate Earths III is out now, containing such short stories as “Gunpowder Treason” (what if Guy Fawkes succeeded?), “Not my Monkey” (what if the Empire-of-Japan scientists knew as much about brain transplants as the Nazi scientists knew about rockets?), my own “Levski’s Boots” (what if Vasil Levski had boots?) and many others.
If you want to know more, here’s the conversation a few of us had about the anthology and alternate history in general.
Interchange also…continues to be available for purchase.
And that’s probably it for publications for a few months. I’m trying to spread the word, so if know of a podcast I should be on or some other form of advertising I should be doing, tell me. A review or two wouldn’t hurt either. Publishers will look to the success of Junction and Interchange when they consider whether or not to buy my next book.
Yes, Centuries is still out with publishers. Godspeed, you little weirdo.
Wealthgiver gamma is still with beta-readers. Next week I’ll to go back to Fellow Tetrapod and make a beta draft, with speculative-evolution help from Timothy Morris. We’ll be doing a lot of speculative biology, so check back for pictures of critters.
And here’s some stuff I liked
Trese – a Netflix series based on a comic series about a supernatural detective in Manilla. It could have been a standard urban fantasy, but somebody really wrote that story! It doesn’t overexplain, it goes deep into gray areas, and bad things happen. It’s also funny and human.
Antediluvian by Wil McCarthy – An electrical engineer teams up with his biologist girlfriend to zap his hypothalamus full of the ancestral memories encoded in his Y-chromosome DNA. Turns out his personality is inherited, and his forefathers also had more bravery than sense. This book is really a collection of short stories, and some were better than others. The tone vacillated between interesting and silly, and I wish it delved deeper.
Hegira by Greg Bear – A penitent, a warlord, and a slave team up to explore their world and learn where it came from. There are some really good personal moments, and as always with Greg Bear, the worldbuilding details are many and beautiful. They don’t quite make sense, though, and the big reveal at the end doesn’t hold together. Still, I enjoyed the methane-powered steam-ship.
Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith – I’d been waiting to read this until I needed inspiration, but I decided I needed a little more light in my literary life. Tears of the Giraffe provided it. There’s death and marriage, missing and found children. McCall Smith’s writing is like standing under parting clouds. Even when he describes terrible things, he’s warm.
Zendegi by Greg Egan – The most mature take on brain-uploading I’ve read. Egan is never bad at writing about people, but here he ups his human game. The science behind the fiction is powerful and important, but it never gets between us and the characters. There are a few moments of real, hard insight.
The Architect of Aeons by John C. Wright – Two men with opposed views on life and freedom butt heads as Earth’s deep future evolves around them. This is the fourth book in the Count to the Eschaton Sequence, and you really do have to read books one and two to get what’s going on. Unfortunately, you also have to read book three, which caused me to drop this series for years. Wright must have been very angry when he wrote it. Book Four, however, is better. The ideas are big and interesting, and we dig satisfyingly into a couple of characters. To paraphrase one of them: “your reaction to the universe can either be despair, anger, or faith.” Wright seems to be trying to move from anger to faith. I appreciate that. Me too.
Against Peace and Freedom by Mark Rosenfelder – You are a fairly competent, very self-absorbed spy for an Ekumen-like interstellar union, sent to dismantle one dictatorship and prevent the formation of another. Think George Orwell and Ursula LeGuin, but funnier (and in the 2nd person). I thought it was hilarious, although the choose-your-own-gender romance subplot did not work at all for me. The story also dragged after a while, but some of the set-pieces were absolutely perfect. Especially the ones with aliens: “Please increase your intelligence!” continues to echo in my head. It’s good advice.
Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe – In the sequel to Soldier of the Mist, a Roman mercenary with no long-term memory stumbles through the Second Persian Invasion of Greece, beset by friends and enemies (mortal and immortal), just trying to do the right thing. I especially like Latro’s attempts to repair his memory, which sort of work, and of course I’m a sucker for Thracians. As with the previous book, it’s not always clear what actually happened, but that just means I can enjoy rereading this book later.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – A nice little index of wise insights. There’s something a lot like mindfulness here, and I’ll need to go back and read the Meditations again to incorporate them into my mental life. I especially like the bit about the lion’s wrinkled brows. Now there’s an image.
David’s Sling by Marc Stiegler – An IT entrepreneur tries to save the world (back before everyone was doing it). The good part of the book (and it’s really good) is the account of this guy putting together a team of engineers to design, build, and project-manage the first military drones. There are passages in there that ring very true. The World-War-III stuff doesn’t fit, and the book would have been better without it. The biggest tragedy is a glorious bad-guy who vanishes halfway through. Still worth reading.
The Hobbit: Illustrated Edition by J.R.R Tolkien – A middle-aged couch-potato sees more of the world than he would have preferred. I read this book to my 8-year-old daughter and was surprised how much she got into it. My Gollum voice is rather good, and she loves the idea of elevenses. For my part I enjoyed this, my third re-read, for the calm pace and focus on experience. Tolkien was a master of description, partly because he had made something worth describing.
See you next month,