Books of 2017, #16: The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

And a little more Scalzi—just a novelette this time.

What if being murdered violently delivered you back into your bed in the state you were a short time before you died?

At the very least, it opens up some interesting new career options.

It’s a fun, if light, read in a world that seems like it has more depth than just a novellette would require. I wonder if this world might make another appearance?

Books of 2017, #15: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson

Even after my mild disappointment with the tone of his last book, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island, which struck me as often sharp or even mean-spirited, I still have an affection for Bill Bryson. What better way to guarantee a more pleasant encounter, then to go back to the beginning (almost) to The Mother Tongue.

So I’ll say at the outset that I have no idea how much of the content of this book is still considered…correct. I mean, like all of Bryson’s books (that I’ve read, at least), it’s a mostly coherent-ish narrative drawing a line through a metric ton of facts, and all I can really speak with authority about is the value of the narrative part.

And the narrative is pretty interesting—English as a language is clearly a bit of a mutt, and seems poised to go and have even more puppies with more partners in the future; there’s no end in sight.

Even more interesting, I think (and something that almost certainly wasn’t clear when Bryson first wrote the book in 1990), is that there’s a reasonable chance that it will continue to be more or less a single language, because the Intertubes provide such unprecedented opportunity for groups with nothing in common geographically to nonetheless interact—in effect, to hold a dialog about what the language will become.

Books of 2017, #13: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

At this point my feelings about John Scalzi should be clear: when I want a book that will be smart, entertaining, absurdly readable and maybe, occasionally, a little profound, I could do a lot worse.

The Collapsing Empire is in this regard no different from any other. It’s a strong start for a new series (though I do hope for another Colonial Union novel one day), and if the the characters are recognizably Scalzi-esque, they’re not retreads. And one of them is hilariously profane.

The only funny thing about it is this: having read it in ebook form, I have no real sense of how long it is. When he mentioned on his blog that it was (IIRC) his second-longest book, I was pretty startled, because I think I read it in about four hours, with breaks.

Terrifyingly readable, in other words.

Books of 2017, #12 & #14: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, by William H. Patterson, Jr.

It was inevitable that I would read this two-part biography of Robert Heinlein.

Though my feelings about him are more complicated than when I was a teenager, to pretend that my exposure to Heinlein in those years didn’t have a profound effect on me would be dishonest in the extreme.

Reading the two fairly doorstop-like volumes, it’s hard not to see this as hagiography; one is left with the impression that Heinlein never seems to have done anything wrong:

Perhaps he was naive, but never foolish (as, say, when he plunged into a first marriage that seems like it must have been doomed from the start). Perhaps he was too accepting, but never unsupportive (as, say, he watched his second wife slide into alcoholism). Perhaps he was too clever for most readers, but never flat-out wrong (as with Farnham’s Freehold).

Maybe this would be easier to take if the book didn’t get relatively easily checked facts wrong—for instance, at one point Barry Goldwater is described as having supported the New Deal:
Certainly Goldwater’s voting record helped Heinlein to support him. It showed he had his heart in the right place—he had voted for the New Deal when it counted […]
It is to laugh.

That this is asserted in a chapter that also asserts that the Democratic Party had been infiltrated by “Leftists” (a thinly-veiled euphemism for “Communists”), which was pushing Heinlein—who had worked with Upton Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California on an almost-socialist platform some thirty years earlier(!)—toward the “center”, represented by Goldwater, doesn’t pass the smell test. I swear, if I never hear another old white man trotting out that “I didn’t abandon the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party abandoned me,” line, it will be too soon.

At least he did the smart thing and passed on Dianetics.

What it comes down to, the thing that ultimately drove me away from his work, is the lack of humility. He is quite open that his work is meant to be at didactic in fuction. OK, that’s fine, but, if you’re going to purport to teach, you better have the right fucking answers, and this is a guy who was wrong again and again, constantly predicting the downfall of civilization, whether to Communism, or nuclear holocaust, or simply the encroachment of other less cultures in a less Western liberal mode.

It’s all a bit too much for a book with the subtitle “In Dialog with His Century”, because it comes off as much more of a monologue.

That said: I would prefer a world that had a more liberal bent—government that interceded when it could be effective, and stayed the fuck out of people’s business when it couldn’t. I suspect he and I would have had rather different ideas about when and how it could be effective, though.