04 March 2009

Appetite for Distraction

Continuing with our theme of fun recession-busting antics that you can do at home and don't cost that much money, I have torn myself away from the brace of scones baking away happily in the oven to write about the other thing occupying my time lately (apart from fretting over the imminent collapse of civilization as we know it), namely reading.

Now to be fair reading has occupied a good deal of my underemployment, it was one of the main pursuits I hoped to enjoy upon leaving work, however this year I have made a conscious effort to move away from the blood-pressure raising, fits of beserker rage-inducing tracts that were the hallmark of 2008. With new Hope, comes a more relaxed and carefree reading list, bolstered by the seemingly endless supply of cheap second-hand genre novels populating the shelves of Chapters on Parnell Street.

To date while I have started at least twenty books I have managed to finish only eight, averaging but one per week. Of these 'The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Invention of Air" were solidly in the non-fiction, might just recommend to a friend (especially "Omnivore's") camp, 4 were embarrassing genre stuff that I read just because Tadhg couldn't finish even one in the series (he knows which one, I don't feel compelled to elaborate any further), and two more are worth mentioning for very different reasons.

The first was "Swiftly" by Adam Roberts, a not-quite-Steampunk take on Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" and Voltaire's "Micromegas" that progressed nicely up to a point with some interesting ideas (Clockwork difference engines made possible by enslaved Lilliputians trapped inside working the mechanisms) before abruptly turning down a dark alleyway of unpleasantness more suitable for the back pages of Craigslist than in an invocation of an eighteenth century work of political allegory. Though he attempts to portray an apocalypse of biological warfare, Roberts was more interested in the scatological than the eschatological, channeling less from Swift's "Gulliver" and more from "The Lady's Dressing Room" and his other similar poems. While Swift's scatological poems still have the power to shock, I found Roberts' homage to be purely vulgar, and an unwelcome intrusion into the storyline.

I did not like this book, not one little bit, and mention it here only as a warning to any who might pick it up and say, 'oh, that sounds like an interesting idea, maybe I will just ignore the alarm bells that are going off in my head at the fact that there seem to be three second-hand copies of this on the shelf, all priced at less than five euro".

One a much lighter note then was a psychological tale of sociopaths and their victims trapped in a powder-keg of tension at the bottom of the Juan de Fuca Ridge off the Pacific Northwest Coast of the US in Peter Watts' "Starfish". I had read Watts' "Blindsight", and am a regular reader of his blog, but didn't get around to reading this book that originally made his name. While most definitely a hard scifi novel, what separates this and "Blindsight" from most genre work is Watts' focus on the psychological interaction between his characters, most of whom stem from developmental archetypes extrapolated out to an almost unrecognizable degree based on his projections of the interactions between future technology and biological modifications. Think Gibson channeling Jung.

This I am much happier to recommend, and have paid it the ultimate literary honour that I can bestow upon a work of genre fiction, I have added it to my LibraryThing, and proudly show it off to all and sundry, rather than hiding it down the back of the couch of shame, never to be seen by occasional visitors in either the real world or the online, like I do with my (far too many) Charlie Stross.

Most of this genre work I have started and finished in a singe day, light reads that aren't that taxing. They are the treat you can eat between meals, without ruining your appetite. Unfortunately as with most advertising, such claims are but a tissue of lies, as since I started reading genre stuff again, the pile of half-read non-fiction continues to build up on my bedside table, unloved and unfinished; Levitin's "Your Brain on Music", Erlich & Erlich's "The Dominant Animal", Vandana Shiva's new book "Soil not Oil", all in various degrees of completion, all discarded (temporarily) in favour of lighter, less challenging fare.

As the recession deepens, I appear to have turned to comfort reading to ease the pain. My brain is filling up on the empty calories and sugar rushes of literary junk food, and it tastes good.

Let us hope that we see some light at the end of the economic tunnel soon, or else I might just wake up one morning and find myself reading Dan Brown.

And nobody wants to see that happen.

'Swiftly' - Adam Roberts
'Starfish' by Peter Watts
Peter Watts' blog

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