It’s 1:00 am and the road is lonely. Steady white lines play out into the endless blackness ahead and behind. The siren song of humming pavement promises cool sheets and a ceiling fan, if only I’ll close my eyes and forget the steering wheel.
Fortunately, I’m wide awake. I’m not just driving home from Memphis. I’m doing research.
Audiobooks are the best caffeine.
Chronicles of the Black Company
Grimdark before there was grimdark. Read this if you like fantasy protagonists who are decent fellows but happen to be working for the bad guy. And know it. And rationalize it. There isn’t a lot of moralizing here, but it was an interesting approach to the fantasy genre. Black Company is not as violent and bloody as contemporary grimdark.
Big ideas. Big characters. A fascinating read about a virus that can infect both computers and humans, especially those who have internalized the binary language of machines into the deep structures of their brain (i.e programmers and hackers). There’s a fair bit of violence and profanity, and some sex, so buyer beware. The story felt jerky and jumped around a little, but that may just be a feature of Neal Stephenson’s approach to telling the story. Listening to this one was definitely a plus.
Off to be the Wizard – Spell or Highwater – Unwelcome Quest
Nerd fantasy. Reality is just a big computer program, and we’re all a bunch of subroutines. Of course nobody knows this except the lucky few who stumble across the program’s Rosetta stone, an innocuous text file stored on random corporate mainframes across the globe. And by modifying this text file, the lucky can modify reality. Need some money? No problem! Want to live in 11th Century England? Allons-Y! Want to change your Pontiac Fiero’s coefficient of entropy and take it back with you?
These books are fun and irreverent, and put the jocks of sci-fi and fantasy in the driver seat. Fun read. Even funnier if you’ve ever been a 13-year old boy, but aren’t anymore.
Consider the Fork
This is not science fiction or fantasy. It’s Bee Wilson’s treatise on the evolution of the kitchen technology we take for granted. Cleverly written, it almost always kept my interest, except around mile three of a four mile jog. . . I especially liked the tips about judging the “doneness” of a steak and the discussion of how eastern cultures (not western) invented disposable chopsticks because a piece of someone’s essence stays with the used utensils even after it’s been washed. (Ingesting a piece of someone else’s soul isn’t sanitary.)
His Majesty’s Dragon
My favorite book this last quarter is His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, hands down. I am not a regency era expert (see my comparison of Jane Austen and J. R. R. Tolkien), but the banter between characters, the careful phrasing, the pacing, and the social intrigue all felt very much like an Austen novel. Then add intelligent dragons and the Napoleonic wars. As with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and the general steampunk genre, I was dubious about this book. At first glance, mixing dragons and Jane seems like a stretch.
Or perhaps a pulled muscle.
But Novik’s style reduces the sensationalism without killing the magic. The characters have some depth, the dialogue is tasteful, and the action scenes are laden with layered meaning. The story sails by in a blink, and I didn’t bat an eye when my kids asked to listen in. Only the ending felt rushed, as if the regency muse stepped out for a tea break while Novik was penning the last few pages.
It’s 10:00 pm and small-gauge gravel sticks between the grooves in my running shoes, pressing into the pads of my feet. Sweat drips down my face, my arms, and my everywhere. It pools between palm and mobile device. It coats the earphone cord I have to hold out of the way as I jog. Only an idiot runs this far in Houston.
But I have research to do, and a torn ACL to rehab. And miles to go before I sleep.
What books keep you awake at night?