Saturday, March 17, 2007

Review Roundup

I've read a number of books and recently (and some not so recently), and I figured I'd do some quick writeups.

First up: China Miéville's Un Lun Dun. This is Miéville's first novel aimed at young adult readers. He acknowledges his inspirations in the acknowledgements, including Neil Gaiman, who seems to hover over the first third of the book like some inverted Marley's ghost. Once past that part (mostly setup and exposition), though, Miéville hits his stride, and so does the book.

The story follows two London girls, Zanna and Deeba, who find themselves drawn into an alternate city, UnLondon (which has counterparts Parisn't, No York, Lost Angeles, and Romeless). Zanna, it seems, is the Shwazee (a bastardization of choisee, the Chosen One), who, it is prophesied, will save UnLondon from great evil.

At some point, this neat standard alternate-world urban fantasy goes off the smoothly greased rails, the Gaiman hommage dissipates some, and things get really interesting.

Favorite bit: animals apparently can move back and forth between London and UnLondon at will (so they all stare at Zanna, 'cause, you know, she's the Shwazee); all except cats, who it turns out are really stupid and only care about looking cool, not about anything like the survival of the world against great evil. Oh, and watch the giraffes.

Least favorite bit: the pun magic. It's funny once, but as a system of the world, it can get infuriating if it's not deftly handled. I felt a bit bludgeoned by it in the first third of Un Lun Dun, but it got better later.

Bottom line: recommended.

Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. I had bought this last year, but finally got it off my shelf last weekend, while grumbling about the stupidity of moving the daylight-savings-time shift date.

The book is basically a light history of Daylight Saving Time (note: not Daylight Savings Time -- it's a timekeeping that, when in effect, is saving daylight, not banking savings of daylight).

The most obvious bizarrity of the story is the sheer number of different political players that have pushed for (or against) DST changes to benefit themselves. Obvious candidates: the New York Stock Exchange, which kept NYC doing Daylight Saving Time so they would have an hour of overlap with the London Stock Exchange (London later returned the favor, resisting Double-Summer time); the candy manufacturers, who wanted DST to start in November, so that Halloween would stay light later (they got their wish in this latest round); farmers (often blamed for DST although they in fact resisted it mightily); golfers; and Richard Nixon (who imposed year-round DST in 1973/1974 -- I vividly remember my mom driving my brother and sister to school [and me to preschool] in the dark; now I actually know why).

Perhaps the most vivid thing about the book is that it illustrates how insane timekeeping was (and still is) in the US and around the world. If nothing else, computers have made it effectively impossible to go back on that. I hope.

Bottom line: recommended for anyone who is interested in little corners of history.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. I am a fan of Johnson's blog, and this book doesn't disappoint. It's a retelling of the classic urban planning story about stopping a cholera epidemic in London, with the legend teased apart, explained, and expanded.

It's not for the delicate of stomach (London in 1854 was apparently a really disgusting place), but it's a fascinating story, and Johnson has an ear for illuminating anecdotes to go along with and illustrate the main story.

My only real complaint is that the book seems a bit loose -- like it's not sure whether to be a straight forward detective story or a day-by-day history or what. That's minor, though.

Bottom line: recommended for anyone interested in cities.

I read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann last year, and was mightily impressed. I just picked up the paperback version (having given my hardback copy to a friend), which includes a new afterword. I re-read the first and last chapters again for good measure.

This is a fascinating book, and an exemplar of the "passionate amateur synthesis" genre. It puts together 50-60 years of research in varied fields (mostly New World Archaeology) and paints a compelling picture of North and South America before the collision with European culture (and most importantly, its germs).

If there's any criticism I have of the book, it's that it doesn't label as well as it might which presentations are established facts, which are well-established and widely-accepted theories, and which are contentious hypotheses. (It does do some of that, but it's hard to tell if it does enough.)

Overall, though, it's a fascinating and mind-blowing picture of North and South America filled with tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people, with highly complex civilizations that were wiped off the map by smallpox and other virulent diseases that the invading Europeans were more immune to. These were civilizations that are only now coming to light because (a) by the time settlers made it into the center of the continent, the civilizations had long since collapsed and been overgrown; and (b) Indians Are Noble Savages, don't you know?

The sheer scale of the societies that existed in the Americas before Columbus's voyages is amazing. Anyone interested in humanity should read this book. Anyone interested in SF should find this fascinating from the standpoint of first contact situations. The "what if" stories or obvious and multitudinous. What if the indigenous Americans had been more disease resistant? (A couple hundred guys with guns will only go so far against millions of well-armed warriors with longbows -- see also Jared Diamond's Collapse, specifically the section where he talks about the Vikings who landed in Labrador and tried to get a foothold -- they ran off, basically saying "Stay away! Those guys are fierce, and dangerous, and don't want us there!"). What if there had been endemic disease in the Americas that had gone back to Europe and spread across the "Old World" as pandemically as smallpox did in the "New World"? I leave other scenarios as an exercise for the reader.

Bottom line: highly recommended.

To summarize:

ObjectArtistRating (out of 5 stars)
Un Lun DunChina Miéville4.0
Spring ForwardMichael Downing3.9
The Ghost MapSteven Johnson4.5
1491Charles C. Mann4.9

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