Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Category: Fiction

Getting closer…

Sorry for the extended radio silence. A new job and the usual life stuff makes it harder to find the time to say much worthwhile. However, that could be changing soon.

First up: Pop Goes Korea update. Yes, I’m actually making progress. In fact, there’s just one more chapter to update – unfortunately, it’s the music chapter, which definitely is going to require the biggest update. But that’s okay. It’s all pretty fun stuff to write about. Oh, and I’m hoping to add a couple of Q&As, just to add some other people’s thoughts and experiences to my overview of the Korean entertainment and media scene.

Of course, even when the writing and editing is done, I’m going to have to figure out e-book publishing on all those online stores (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). That might take a bit of figuring out. But hopefully it won’t take too much longer.

In other writing news, my publisher tells me that my new novel is supposed to be ready and in the world in June. So that’s pretty exciting, too. I was lucky enough to meet the cover artist, Eric Belisle, in Tokyo a few weeks ago, and in addition to being a fun and fascinating guy, Eric also came up with a couple of fun changes to the cover based on our chat. I’ve seen an early version and I’m pretty happy with it.

So, it looks like the next few months could be fun and productive for me. I hope you enjoy the results!

A free will review of ECHOPRAXIA

I’ve talked before about my love of Peter Watts’s writing. With the recent release of ECHOPRAXIA, I thought I would give it a little review here, along with some random thoughts about his many not-so-random thoughts.

So what’s Echopraxia about? It is the story of Dan Bruks, a “baseline” human (a mostly unmodified, “normal” person) living in a very modified, post-human world nearly a hundred years in the future. When the story begins, Dan is just conducting field research in the desert of Oregon, mostly trying to keep to himself. But soon he finds himself swept up in conflicts of various post-human forces — Bicameral hive minds, zombie military forces, and the occasional vampire — a cockroach scurrying about before much greater powers, mostly just hoping to stay alive.

It is the kind-of sequel (or “side-quel”, if you will) to the amazing science-fiction novel BLINDSIGHT. Blindsight focused on humanity’s response to a first-contact situation with a very strange alien life form about a hundred years from now, sending a crew of bizarre post-humans out to the edge of the solar system to find out more about the aliens. Echopraxia, on the other hand, is more about the humanity left behind on Earth, and how post-humans continue to transform themselves and clash with each other at home.

Being a Peter Watts novel, it is also about scheming, untrustworthy actors with conflicting and hidden agendas, and our main character trying to navigate the treacherous path between them. It is also about as hard as “hard sci-fi” can get. It’s full of dense talk about biology and physics, and wild extrapolations from that science, with a huge amount of footnotes to back it all up.

So, how good is it? And should you read it?

1) Very good, although not quiet as dizzyingly brilliant as Blindsight. But that still makes it ten times better and smarter than most other science fiction.

2) Yes! Although you really need to read Blindsight first, to keep up with a lot of the strong background stuff on vampires and the aliens.

Blindsight was largely about consciousness, with Watts offering the idea that consciousness is not such a great evolutionary adaptation after all. As a big fan of Julian Jaynes, I loved a book riffing on those sorts of themes.

Echopraxia, on the other hand, is more about free will, and touches more on religious issues — which is fine, although it is not as compelling stuff to me as consciousness is.

The biggest problem with the book is that the main character appears to have no agency for most of the story (not really a surprise in a book critiquing free will). Although as the story going on, that “problem” mostly resolves itself. But it is harder to make a story compelling when it seems like the main character is just along for the ride.

The coolest part of the book is the alien life form Watts comes up with, nicknamed “Portia” (after a fascinating species of spider). Watts really knows his biology and is great at coming up with unusual biological systems. I always enjoy reading about strange aliens that are more interesting than evil-killer-monsters or super-intelligent daddy-figures. Watts is also great at challenging a lot of common assumptions about what makes humans human, and what is special about being human — call it the “anti-Star Trek”.

So, if you are looking for a great read, something challenging and really off-the-wall, a big recommend for Echopraxia (and Blindsight).

UPDATE: I should elaborate on one point about the “free will” thing. Watts has mentioned several times that he does not think that Echopraxia is about free will — in the footnotes to the book and elsewhere. But I fear I have to take issue with him on that point. While Echopraxia leaves no question about Watts’s feeling on whether we have free will (clearly “no”),  it does spend a lot of time talking about how and why we do what we do. I mean, the very title of the novel means “stereotyped imitation of the movements of others.” So it seems pretty clear to me that this is a book about motivations and lack-of-rationality … in other words, free will (or, if you prefer, totally-not-free will).

Fun Books: Watts on Tap

A couple of years ago, I read Peter Watts’ Blindsight and discovered a new favorite science-fiction author. It was the story of a first-contact with alien life situation, with the Earth sending a small ship filled with broken people out to the edge of the solar system to learn about this alien race. It was also very hard s/f, with a lot of ideas about biological systems – not only were the aliens very alien, but the humans sent out to deal with them had been heavily modified, too.

Then last December, I was lucky enough to enjoy a few beers with Peter in a Toronto pub. He was great fun to talk with, and he even showed us the current state of his leg, post-operation for the flesh-eating bacteria problem he famously had a couple of years ago. Gnarly good fun.

Now I’m going through some of his earlier works. His first novel, Starfish, is also about highly damaged people in a high-stress situation (the bottom of the ocean in this case), dealing with bizarre life forms (thermophiles that grow along deep-sea vents).

And I’m reading his collection of short stories called Beyond the Rift, which so far has also been good fun.

Note: Most (all?) of Peter’s stuff is available on his website with a Creative Commons License, so you can read it for free. I doubt any of my publishers would be so accommodating, but I think it is a great idea. The problem for most authors in this world is exposure, so getting the word out is far more important than a couple of dollars of royalties (and for most authors, royalties really are just a couple of dollars). Once you’ve realized how good Peter’s stuff is, you’ll probably be happy to buy a few copies.

Peter’s new book, Echopraxia (a sequel to Blindsight), is coming out in August. Yay.


Hard-Boiled Barcelona

A happy day yesterday, as I managed to track down two more Pepe Carvalho novels (in English, of course, as my Spanish reading skills are pretty poor). Pepe Carvalho is one of my favorite detective series, the story of a former-communist and former CIA agent turned private detective working out of Barcelona. Carvalho is also a Galician living in Barcelona, a total foodie (to comical proportions), very smart and even more cynical, making him a good way for author Manuel Vazquez Montalban to mock and critique many aspects of Spanish society and the world.

For the past year or so, I find I have been reading a lot of genre fiction. In part, I have been trying to think about what makes a story/series/character popular. I guess my assumption is that often we take a lot of these well-known stories for granted, but there had to have been something there at the beginning, some kernel that excited people and inspired the popularity in the first place. So I have read some Ian Fleming, John LeCarre, Raymond Chandler, and the like. It’s interesting stuff, especially seeing how much slower and lower-stakes the conflicts could be just a generation ago. Other times, you can see some good writing going on, even among writers who perhaps grew more hack-like as time went on.

Anyhow, in the process, I have stumbled across the Carvalho series. The first one I read is still my favorite, Southern Seas, in part because it is set in the late Seventies and has a lot of twisted politics in it. I also really liked An Olympic Death, which talks a lot about how Barcelona was changing during the run-up to the 1992 Olympics (even if some of its AIDS-related storyline has ages poorly).

All the Carvalho books provide great looks at a Barcelona that has so totally changed over the past generation … and yet has not changed as much as most people think. Vazquez Montalban has a style that reminds me a bit of Nikos Kazantzakis in its earthiness (although definitely less literary than Kazantzakis), and Carvalho is a bit of a Zorba character.

I also find it interesting the Vazquez Montalban, who was from Barcelona originally, would choose to make his signature character hail from the opposite side of the country.  Was there a reason for this? Commentary on Catalan nationalism? The politics of Franco-era Spain (when he began the series)? Unfortunately, I just don’t know enough about the author or the country to say.

The new Carvalho books I picked up yesterday are Murder in the Central Committee and The Angst-Ridden Executive, both early books in the series, from 1977 and 1981 respectively. I’m really looking forward to reading both.

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