Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday Library Post, 8/19/2011

Three books this week. Incidentally, I go back to work in a couple of weeks, so my reading will probably drop off a little then. Such is life.

J.D. Robb - Conspiracy in Death

This is part of Robb's (aka Nora Roberts) "in Death" series. It's set in the near future (which is a problem), and follows the exploits of Lieutenant Eve Dallas, of the New York Police. In this book, Dallas tackles a serial killer who is harvesting organs from street people.

I had read the first (for me) of this series, Holiday in Death, during one of my research trips, earlier this summer. It was a trashy book, but somewhat better, I thought, than the other ones I was reading that week. This week, this book sort of pales in comparison to what else I've been reading, and it feels especially trashy. It was a fun read, and I don't want to put you off of the book, or the series - just go in knowing that it's not high literature, and you may want something deeper to clean your palate afterwards.

I had two problems with the book. First, Roberts writes romance novels, and she doesn't want to totally lose her romance audience in these books. As a result, every couple of chapters culminates in a steamy sex scene between Dallas and her husband, Rourke (just one name, like Madonna). That begins to feel a little excessive by the end of the book. Also, I don't know Roberts' romance novels, but I'm beginning to wonder if she dances on the edge of the whole "it's not rape if you enjoyed it after" romance trope - several of the sex scenes felt a little non-consensual at the beginning, although Dallas gets into them before they're done. Rourke seems to think that a roll in the hay is always good for what ails Dallas, and Robb seems to agree - it's a little off putting.

My second problem is that the book is set in the near future - but it was written in the recent past (1999). So some of the stuff that Robb presents as fabulously future-y ... isn't, so much. Further, it's clear that Robb doesn't have a particularly rosy view of human nature. In the future, there are still street people in New York. People are still doing the same drugs (with different names). Politics are the same (Liberals v. Conservatives, over the same issues, using the same tactics). It's a little depressing, frankly.

That being said, as I said above, I don't want to put you off. It was a perfectly fine book, all things considered, and I'll be grabbing another when I head out for research in the future.

Trevanian - Shibumi

By contrast, we have this book, which I do want to put you off of. A little background. Trevanian is apparently something of a celebrity, publishing under a pseudonym (one name, like Madonna - it's a theme!) in such a wide variety of genres that some people speculated that the name was actually a cover for a consortium of authors. It turns out, no, Trevanian was actually Rodney Whitaker, a professor of film studies at the University of Texas, Austin. At least, when he published his first two novels. His wiki is here. The thing which isn't in the wiki is the fact that Dr. Whitaker was a huge pompous ass.

Ok, that needs some support. The novel is about Nicholai Hel, this super assassin who works for anyone willing to pay to eliminate terrorists. Hel is a huge pompous ass - although Russian-German by birth, he's Japanese by upbringing, and it's clear that he doesn't think that any other nation comes close to Japan as a worthwhile place to live. He's cold, he uses people, he's an altogether unpleasant person. Ok, I can see him as an anti-hero, perhaps, and it's not fair of me to accuse Trevanian of being an ass just because his character is an ass. Trevanian could just have written a really good ass of a character - that would make him a good writer, not an ass.

No, what marks Trevanian as an ass is this rich little footnote:

In the course of this book, Nicholai Hel will avail himself of the tactics of Naked/Kill*, but these will never be described in detail. In an early book, the author portrayed a dangerous ascent of a mountain. In the process of converting this novel into a vapid film, a fine young climber was killed. In a later book, the author detailed a method for stealing paintings from any well-guarded museum. Shortly after the Italian version of this book appeared, three paintings were stolen in Milan by the exact method described, and two of these were irreparably mutilated.Simple social responsibility now dictates that he avoid exact descriptions of tactics and events which, although they might be of interest to a handful of readers, might contribute to the harm done to (and by) the uninitiated. 
In a similar vein, the author shall keep certain advanced sexual techniques in partial shadow, as they might be dangerous, and would certainly be painful, to the neophyte.
*Hel can kill people using anything. At one point, he kills a bunch of people with a comb, a plastic cup and a magazine.

So, the author is an ass. The hero is an ass as well. That's not, perhaps, enough to warn you away from this book. How about this - the book was published in 1979, and it has not aged well. The use of giant mainframe computers with punch cards, for instance. Interesting, perhaps, as a historical artifact. The attitudes are painful too - the casual misogyny (the violence towards women is unnecessary, and contributes nothing to the plot), and the casual antisemitism (both against Jews and Arabs; also not necessary to the plot). The bizarre cultural chauvenism (Hel is totally focused on Japanese culture and how it is superior to all other cultures - but he's not Japanese - he's a white guy who is more Japanese than the Japanese - cultural appropriation? Racism? A little of both? Hard to say.) The long section describing caving in the Basque mountains - purely to set up a later description of caving with evil evil bad guys in the background later. The use of foreign language without translation or gloss. I dunno - by that point, the whole book was setting my teeth on edge. I finished it, but I didn't like it much, and I won't be reading any more by Trevanian.

I did like one of his characters, Bernard Le Cagot, a Basque poet and freedom fighter. Le Cagot swore, colourfully, on the various balls of Catholic saints - the perforated balls of St. Stephen, the four balls of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, by the perfidious balls of Judas - like that. It was an endearing thing. I'd read more about Le Cagot, perhaps.

Charles Stross - Rule 34

No sign of WWII propaganda posters. Oh well. This was a perfect antidote to Trevanian. Stross is a smart guy, but he doesn't seem forced to prove it to his readers quite as forcefully as Trevanian. So that was nice.

It's a murder mystery. It's set a little way into the future - it's not clear quite how far into the future, but not too far, maybe a decade or two. Like Robb, Stross seems to have a dim view of human nature - folks are still up to the same sort of fiscal shenanegans - but he posits that, at some point between now and then, we get our act together and start prosecuting ethics violations by businesses. So that's nice. The mystery involves internet memes, and porn (that's clear from the title, you may recall), and spam. It sort of follows Halting State, in that it's set in the same version of futureEdinburgh, where everyone uses virtual reality all the time, and the cops use it to do their jobs better. I like the future Stross presents, it appeals.

Something that starts out a little off putting, but eventually fades into the background - Stross has written the book entirely in 2nd person - "you, your, you've," etc. There are multiple points of view, but it's "you" all the way through. At first, that feels a little odd, but you get used to it.

A satisfying police procedural. I figured out the murderer before the end, which is nice, but the joy of a police procedural is that you get to watch the cops figure it out, through intuition and good research. Stross does the genre proud. I think it is likely he will re-visit Edinburgh in the (near) future, and I'll take that trip with him when he does.