The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

An excellent antidote to the normal narratives of invention and progress.

But Edgerton isn’t a Luddite, or a cynic that doesn’t believe in progress. Instead, he sets out to fill in the stories that normally get glossed over in normal histories: the importance of horsepower to the modern armies of World War II, the communities in West Africa that have grown up specifically to maintain the cars and trucks they inherit from the developed world using local materials, the resurgence in whaling in the 1920s and 1930s driven by demand for whale oil to be used in margarine. It’s fascinating, incredibly readable, and it changed the way I read stories of technical progress and achievement.

Three facts in particular stood out to me:

  • India and Taiwan produce more bicycles each year than the entire world did in 1950.
  • In 2003, the largest R&D spenders weren’t in biotech or the internet; they were car companies: Ford, Daimler Chrysler, Toyota, etc.
  • The rickshaw, which I always assumed was an old tech lingering in the modern world, was in fact only invented in 1870, in Japan.

The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod

A quick, enjoyable read. Indiana Jones crossed with John Le Carré sprinkled with some Inception-like plotting.

Presents itself as a regular sci-fi novel, but the first half is almost completely filled with flashbacks, a series of nested stories, one inside the other, each level going one step further back into the past. Macleod pulls it off by having the same narrator tell most of it, then uses interrogation transcripts and letters to fill out the rest.

It’s nested all the way down, with the novel’s big ideas woven into the structure of the narrative itself. Ultimately works it way back to the very beginning, the first story, closing the loop in a very tidy (but not too tidy) way.

It’s the best method of infodumping I’ve seen in a long time.

Macleod may have carried the nesting too far. By the time I reached the end of the book (and back to the first level of nested story) I had to re-read the beginning to remind myself of what was going on there, and I’m not sure the details between the two endpoints match up.

Still, it’s a lesson in how to present a lot of backstory (~100 pages worth!) to the reader without it feeling shoved down their throat.

Crawling Toward the Start Line

I’ve decided to stick with the plan of working on the new novel first, and then going back to edit the last one.

That means I need to get cracking on a serious outline for the new book. Got some travel coming up next week, which should give me some dedicated time to start hashing that out. I’ve got the three main characters already and the basic plot, so it’ll be a matter of working out the beats of the story as well as taking a first stab at how it will end. That ending will probably be completely different by the time its written, but I need a star to steer by if I’m going to get in the boat.

With luck — and work, let’s not forget time-in-chair — I’ll have the outline done in two weeks, so I can start writing in earnest by June 1st. That’ll give me six months of runway to be finished before the end of the year.

Let’s hope it’s enough.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Medieval-level fantasy with goblins and elves, airships and intrigue, and race relations and gender politics and multiple sexual orientations. In a word, awesome.

Vivid and rich and alive in unexpected ways. The plot is rather basic — outsider unexpectedly inherits the throne, has to learn to rule people that look down on him — but the characters are so interesting, so well fleshed-out, that it held me all the way through. I might just read it again.

The big writing lesson for me from this book is exactly that: well-written characters that you want to spend time with will compensate for a lot of other shortcomings. For The Goblin Emperor, those shortcomings would normally compel me to stop reading.

I gave up trying to pronounce many of the fantasy words and names it introduces. The glossary of terms, which I found while desperately searching for some sort of help in keeping terms and titles and characters straight, proved to be worthless. Many of its definitions are either self-referential or refer to other terms which are. There’s also no map, so I had no idea of the relative size or placement of any of the cities and nations mentioned in the book. As some of the intrigue involves trade relations among neighboring realms, this was frustrating.

But I ultimately didn’t care. I cared about the main character from the first chapter, and cared about the others almost as quickly. I skipped over names, I couldn’t keep any of the titles straight, I had no idea where anything was, and I didn’t care. The main challenges of the book were people, and I wanted the main character to succeed with all of them. Everything else faded away.

Pulled

Even while outlining the new novel, I keep wanting to go back to the old.

Especially now that I’ve gotten some reader feedback. Makes me think maybe my time would be better spent editing and polishing the novel I’ve got, rather than writing a new one.

Or perhaps I should switch to outlining and writing the sequel to the last novel? That’d be easier: I’ve already got the characters and the world in place, and some history established. I should be able to get off and running on that book faster than the first, right?

It’s hard for me to tell whether this is my normal flightiness or a sensible course correction.

For now, I’m going to stick with the plan: outline and write a new book with completely different characters, then come back to the first novel and edit it into shape. With that done, I’ll be able to alternate periods of new writing with periods of editing, and hopefully get into a rhythm that’ll sustain me all the way to publication.

Outsiders

Genre fiction has always been aimed at the Outsider, at the person with enough distance from the dominant culture to think critically about it.

It’s just that our definition of Outsider has expanded.

When I was a kid, I felt like an Outsider because I was clumsy and nerdy and socially awkward. The school’s hierarchy enforced that status: football players were in, science geeks were out. Genre fiction was pitched directly at me, giving me an escape from social rejection and poverty and feeding into the sense of wonder I held about the world around me.

I never thought about the fact that, as a white male, the ladder I felt myself to be on the low rungs of was already placed far over the heads of other groups.

As an adult, I no longer feel like an Outsider. Though I undoubtedly am an Outsider when in certain company — I’m an atheist, which puts me out from most of the American populace, and a programmer, which makes my work boring to most people — I don’t feel like one day in and day out.

I’ve come to realize that there are other people who feel much more like Outsiders than I ever did, and that while my Outsider-status has diminished with adulthood, theirs has likely only been enhanced, as their life experiences diverge from what’s considered acceptable in wider society.

These people — women*, people of color, the LBGT community — deserve genre fiction that speaks to them, that talks about their experiences as Outsiders (and Insiders**), that addresses their issues and their needs. I’m glad to see my favorite section of the bookstore embracing them, proud to see us growing up as a subculture.

I still enjoy this fiction, even though I’m straight, and white, and male. Because I remember being the kid that didn’t fit in, that no one wanted to play with, that adults felt uncomfortable around and kids didn’t want to talk to. Sci-fi and fantasy was there for me, and it can and should be there for others, as long as there are outsiders that need it.

The Imagination is a big place. there’s room for all of us.

 

* Which, holy shit, that half of the population should be sidelined in pop culture for so long is mind-boggling
** Everyone that belongs to a subculture outside the norm is automatically an Insider for that subculture

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

Wonderfully written re-discovery of the world of 1913 via a tour of its major cities. Manages to give a feel for each without dwelling too long on any one city.

Ends on a haunting note, with the assurances and questions of 1913 obliterated by the war of 1914. 1913 comes to seem an extension of the 19th century, rather than the beginning of the 20th, a different world that had a different future, once. Final chapter quotes a German intellectual returning home after the war to see everything preserved as if 1913 had been frozen in time: the British books, the Persian cigars from French friends, the Russian plays, all transformed, all changed now that the internationalism of 1913 had been dismantled by four years of war.

Three of the many things I learned about the state of the world in 1913:

  • The Ottoman Empire was still in the midst of the reforms and changes brought about by the Young Turks and the new parliamentary government they had brought back
  • Woodrow Wilson originally ran on a platform of domestic reform, and hoped that his presidency would leave him free from foreign policy crises so he could focus on it.
  • Non-European Algerians were french subjects, not citizens. They could become citizens only by renouncing Islam and applying for citizenship