Archive for June 2013

Great Effing Novels: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

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In brief: I have one thing to say: Mockingbird is one of the best novels I've ever read. I never thought I'd be moved to say such a thing at my age, but there you go. The rest of this review goes into why, but the point is simple: read it, then talk to me about it. It also corrected my belief that no one could read anything original about New York City anymore.

Walter Tevis also wrote The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and despised both adaptations.

The Full Review

When you know that humanity's coming to an end, what would you want your legacy to be? These are the thoughts that drive us; we pretend to be concerned with a bigger picture, but that view tends to sit just out of reach, something we strive for but never achieve, trapped as we are in our own petty quests.

What if your single driving goal in life is to die? That you want this one thing so badly that every decision you make services that desire, with no regard for consequences to others? That's the question that Walter Tevis' Mockingbird asks. What depravity would that desire drive us to, and how will we mutate if we can't succeed?

Walter Tevis' Mockingbird overflows with character. Dystopian fiction, especially the kind designed to stimulate "big ideas about the dangerous direction society is headed", doesn't tend to concern itself too much with people ("big thoughts" being the operative concept).

Think of 1984 or Brave New World or even Yevgeny Zamyatin's We: there's a male lead who's notable for his very inhumanity, and some female who spurs thoughts of "zomg my desire to act on my desires for love and sex will set me free even if they kill me for it!"

If I'm being reductive, it's with reason. These women are objects; the science fiction equivalent of the manic pixie dream girl saves our hero from a life of total conformity.

But in Mockingbird, there are no heroes, just people striving to be human, which is a heroic enough feat. Because no one's elevated to being more than they are, the characters are actually allowed to breathe: we know Mary Lou, and we understand why she doesn't wait for Bentley (which is a thing every other woman in every other fucking dystopian novel would have done, or felt tortured for not doing).

Not just people; robots too. Spofforth the philosophical android is unique enough: you never forget that he's a product of cold human design, yet he still evolves into a peculiar personhood of his own. Did I mention he's black? A black fucking android roaming the streets of New York City, distracting the world with his perfect physical form while trapped in the darkness of his own driving ambition.

He makes so many bad decisions, like any good human. And yet his value his clear. You see what happens to the world when he stops paying attention. The real answer? It doesn't fall apart, but he feels it does. That's not a human feeling at all.

Mockingbird's world came to be not because of outside concepts like technology and politics, but from human mistakes (if you think that's a weird statement to make about a robot, you haven't yet met Spofforth). The tension between a desire for privacy and a desire to be part of something bigger than oneself drives much of the narrative.

But I've just spent a lot of words to say one simple thing: read this novel. You will love it. The end.

On Apple's iOS 7.0 "Refresh"

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The office put up Apple's WWDC keynote on a giant projector screen, and hilarity ensued (and swiftly turned to horror). Five comments from work that perfectly capture the complete and total awfulness of Apple's new iPhone operating system:

  1. Person who casually walks into kitchen, unaware of what's onscreen: "Oh hey! What's that on screen? Is that Android?"
  2. Apple fanboy, slowly deflating: "Didn't the Nokia phone fail?"
  3. Smug Apple-hater: "It's like they kidnapped the designer of the Windows phone."
  4. Bewildered so-and-so: "Did Apple buy out Yahoo so they could steal the design of the Yahoo!Weather app?...And make it worse?"
  5. "It's funny that they're making album covers so prominent. You know who taught me not to look at album covers anymore? ...iTunes."

You may detect a common theme in these remarks (which are closer to verbatim than you might think): there's nothing remotely original about this design. It cobbles together aesthetic ideas that have existed for years in various smartphones, failing to tie them together into a coherent whole (and let's face it, this is what Apple used to do best).

It's possible that this is a functional problem with the technology of the smartphone itself. Think about it; the iPhone debuted almost 7 years ago, and hasn't really changed interaction. What devices have stayed so static? Even with dumb phones, every year there were new ways of interacting, from standard buttons to touchscreen buttons to horizontal keyboards to different kinds of screens entirely.

The technology is stuck and so the design is stuck. Which brings me to the greatest shortage in my industry today: creative hardware developers.


The Peculiar Orientalism of The Orphan Master's Son

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Orphan Master's Son

Have you ever consumed an Eton mess? A popular English dessert, it earned its name from looking like what remains after a bunch of teenage boys beat each others' brains out and then have a drunken orgy with a dingo.

But it's delicious, and you can't stop eating it, even though the Oreos and the strawberries battle each other with textures that feel similar but don't fit together in any way shape or form.

Ahem. I'm hungry now. Anyway...

If you take two steps away from Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, it looks like a fucking mess; it moves from cold gritty realism to picaresque fantasy to delusional fiction (which, ironically, is a dangerous quality in a work of fiction) without bothering to clue in the reader.

When it succeeds, it ruins you so bad that you feel cowardly for even wanting to look away. 90% of the novel falls into that camp. But Johnson disrupts the flow too often with cheap (and insensible) tricks that leave you questioning any truth in the world he fashions.

I imagine any discussion of North Korea has that problem: all we know about that country is how much we don't know. But think about constructing an entire nation from the views of the ones who choose to defect. If the United States were suddenly closed for business, how might Texan secessionists describe the country?

This is what The Orphan Master's Son struggles with. As Barbara Demick said in her own review of the novel:

"People are inclined to believe whatever outrage they read about North Korea, but bad as it is, I've not heard of political prisoners being lobotomised with nails inserted over the eyeball or with electrical charge."

And this is where it hurts to be such a structural mess. If the narrative kept focus, you can overlook the muddy details and choose to follow the highly compelling story of one Jun Do (whose homophonic resemblance to John Doe is no accident).

I love science fiction, so I'd never belittle a setting for being imaginary. But the fact remains, this is not science fiction. North Korea is a real place, with real people. Crafting a dystopian view of a mysterious place seems like an impossible talk; for a dystopian novel to work, you need to understand the society it critiques.

Choosing to set this work of fiction in a place you know nothing about (and don't pretend taking one trip for a couple of days in a highly controlled environment tells you anything about a society) smacks of orientalism of the worst kind. All our knowledge is based on what we imagine their lives are like, which erases any space for true humanity.

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