Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

13235961Jack Glass is Adam Roberts’s best book by a long shot, though in hindsight it has some serious flaws. I think of Roberts (whom I’ve followed since his first book) as a genius premise-generator and so-so storyteller with a particular weakness with endings. The good news about Jack Glass is that (as usual) it is based on some sweet ideas and (not as usual) it is a terrific yarn. The bad news is that, yet again, it has a really disappointing ending — though here the problem isn’t execution so much as incompletion.

The book is divided into three parts that tell two stories. The first story is a prison breakout with the craziest prison and the freakiest breakout I’ve ever read. An asteroid reconstruction company purchases prisoners and then deposits them with minimal supplies and some mining equipment on some godforsaken rock in the middle of nowhere — for eleven years. The idea is that the company will send a ship back after that time, to discover one of two things: either the prisoners have out of horrid necessity carved out a habitable space, in which case the company frees the prisoners and sells the now-liveable asteroid at a healthy profit; or the prisoners are dead, in which case the company writes off the loss and (I would guess) claims a nice tax deduction.

This is a darkly hilarious premise, but somewhat unfortunately Roberts plays it straight. A legless prisoner named Jac [sic] is thrown into one of these asteroids with ten other reprobates, and what ensues could come straight from one of those prison exploitation films complete with brutal maulings, psychological torture, and degrading rapes. The story follows no particular arc except to show how Jac endures while others, rather horribly, do not, but as nasty as the story gets it’s told with a certain panache. More importantly, by the end Roberts gets around to hinting at bigger mysteries just before a spectacular explosion of violence transitions to the second story.

Now before I get to that second story I want to make clear that while I did enjoy this prison tale it basically has nothing to do with the rest of the book, and it leaves unanswered a huge huge question, which is — SPOILER ALERT — how the hell does Jac, moving at sublight speeds in a samizdat spacesuit, get anywhere near civilization?

The second story is in the Golden Age genre of far-future science fiction, and concerns the young daughters of a wealthy and powerful family vacationing on Earth when suddenly a murder takes place. At first the daughters (who are genetic geniuses) treat the murder as nothing more than a pleasant diversion, but the investigation spirals into a deadly political struggle and a thrilling escape.

This story is very good except that it focuses on the wrong thing and ends too abruptly. The conceit of the entire book is that it presents several “mysteries,” and in the second story Roberts does nothing more than answer those mysteries (mostly having to do with how various people died). But it turns out that what’s really interesting about the story is the broader political struggle, both between the families that rule the solar system and between the rulers and the proletariat. These tensions are brought to a boil by the added complication of rumored faster-than-light technology — which must be a fantasy, according to the laws of physics, and yet which is enough as a mere idea to trigger devastating machinations.

I would have loved a book that really wrestled with this political story. But Jack Glass is content to be a mere clever puzzle box of a novel — hinting at all of this delicious conflict but doing little more with it beyond providing a background for its mysteries.

★★★★☆

Complications, by Atul Gawande

complicationsAtul Gawande’s Complications is an outstanding collection of essays about medicine from the doctor’s point of view. There are a couple of throwaway pieces in the book that are best ignored, including a very silly essay on the superstitions surrounding Friday the Thirteenth and a bizarrely self-pitying one about medical conferences. But for the most part the book provides a compelling picture about “how fundamentally human an endeavor” the practice of medicine is.

The book’s central message is simple: medicine is more of an art than a science. The view of medicine that Gawande implicitly attacks sees the human body as a machine (albeit a complex one) and doctors as skilled mechanics. When your car breaks down, you may have no idea what is going on, but you expect your mechanic to be able to interpret every rattle and gurgle, to twist the right bolt or install the right part to get things working again — and for the most part that will be true. We civilians tend to see doctors the same way. But Gawande’s point is that this comfortable view is an illusion. In fact, Gawande explains, the human body is still fundamentally mysterious, despite centuries of scientific progress; and doctors make decisions based on intuition and outright guesswork more often than we would like to think.

Complications would not be a very long book if this were the only point that it made. (Indeed, Gawande essentially divulges the entire thesis in the introduction.) What makes the essays truly outstanding is how insightfully Gawande probes the implications of his argument, spinning out long and beautiful thoughts from simple beginnings. In the first essay on doctor training, for example, Gawande begins with the fairly straightforward notion that medicine’s inherent uncertainty requires trainees to practice their skills on actual patients, since book learning can only take them so far. But he is then able to tie this need for training into a broader conflict between patient safety (which is best served by doctors doing only what they know) and innovation (which requires experimentation and, inevitably, disastrous mistakes). And he is even able to touch on the sensitive area of economic inequality, noting that the patients most likely to be treated by inexperienced residents-in-training are the poor and uneducated, while the wealthy and privileged few — including those like Gawande — have the luxury of receiving treatment only from those doctors who have already “practiced” on the less fortunate.

The second half of Complications is a little different. Rather than discussing the internal view of medicine, the essays here describe common phenomena that, it turns out, are medical mysteries, including pain, nausea, and blushing. There is somewhat more of a rote structure to these essays: they are all framed by an individual’s anecdote and contain in the middle highly readable summaries about medical research. All of these essays reinforce the main thesis about medical science’s uncertainty, but they are best enjoyed as individual pieces rather than as part of the larger argument.

★★★★☆

A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan

AMOL_cover_lgI promised not so long ago to give my thoughts on each book of The Wheel of Time. I’m about thirteen books behind. But since I just finished the last book, A Memory of Light, I figured I’d go out of order and begin with my thoughts on the end. SPOILER ALERT!

1. Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re a fan of TWOT, you have to read AMOL. Reviews are really beside the point.

If you’re not a fan of the series, then frankly AMOL is not good enough to slog through the rest of the books. But my guess is you would have given up a long time ago.

2. Brandon Sanderson is a masterful plotter, as he showed in his own Mistborn trilogy, but even he has trouble with the dozens of unresolved threads that AMOL must wrap up. Many threads end in deeply unsatisfying ways, sometimes with mere cameo appearances. Padan Fain, for instance, gets just a scene or two despite his long presence in the series. Perrin’s fight with Slayer gets a lot more attention but also ends with a whimper: we never fully understand who Slayer is or why he did what he did for so many books. (Indeed, I’m convinced the whole Slayer plot could have been eliminated without hurting the series at all.) And poor Logain, despite all the prophecies of his glory, is forced to settle for the sympathy of widows and orphans.

Other threads get no resolution whatsoever. The Seanchan’s enslavement of channelers has been a lurking issue since the second book; it’s discussed plenty here without anybody deciding to do anything about it. (As much as I like Mat, his blithe acceptance of this slavery in the last few books is deeply disturbing.) Aviendha’s dark visions of the Aiel’s future barely get mentioned at all. And Shara, the mysterious land east of the Waste, makes a very significant surprise appearance, but there is neither forewarning nor follow-up about an entire subcontinent’s involvement with one of the Forsaken.

3. All of these criticisms are about sideshows, though, since the main feature of AMOL is the Last Battle. And it is a doozy. Sanderson tracks a huge number of POV characters through a very long and complex fight, and rather than falling to pieces the story just gets more and more exciting. There are so many spectacular moments it’s hard to do justice to them all, but just off the top of my head: the corruption of the great captains; Androl showing off his talent for gateways; Egwene unleashing vengeance; the Seanchan’s return; and poor Bela.

Seriously: however dissatisfying other aspects of this book (and series) may be, the Last Battle itself is a gut-wrenching thrill ride.

4. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the Last Battle too. One increasingly ridiculous trope is the comedy show of protagonists riding off solo to challenge Demandred in hand-to-hand combat. Another issue is the lengthy setup to the battle itself, which involves both tedious logistical planning (thanks for letting us know where that caravan is going!) and an absurdly unrealistic political negotiation about post-Battle affairs.

But the most serious problem is Rand’s long-awaited encounter with the Dark One. As it turns out, this is not an actual fight but more of an ideological debate. Yes, folks: Rand spends nearly the entire book in a battle of the mind, and the Dark One ends up being less of a villain than the concept of villainy itself. So abstracted, the struggle between these two antagonists — which is supposed to be the apotheosis of this entire series — ends up being a bore. (No pun intended.)

5. That takes me to the actual ending. When Jordan died, we TWOT fans were assured that he had not just decided on an ending, but had actually written an epilogue describing the fates of all of the characters. With all due respect for the dead, I have the sinking feeling that Jordan’s vision ended up shackling Sanderson rather than fulfilling the series’ potential.

The key defect with the ending is that it’s so abrupt. The Last Battle ends — and within pages this fourteen-volume series is over. We don’t get any real sense of the long-term implications of the world-shattering events that have just occurred. We don’t get the characters’ own reflections on what just happened. In fact we barely get to see the dead buried before Jordan gives each of the remaining protagonists (well, most of them) a tidy little scene that is supposed to be their send-off.

It’s not enough. Different epic series have adopted different approaches to endings, with varying levels of success. But the one essential is giving the readers a chance to breathe, to linger within the shared dream for just a little longer before saying goodbye. AMOL doesn’t provide that opportunity — the final flaw in a memorable, imperfect, frustrating, and glorious series.

★★★★☆

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

7238735-LThis is a book that really shouldn’t work but then really does. Its basic concept is a joke about the hapless crew members of sci-fi starships who always end up dying on alien planets while the clearly identified main cast survives against all odds. This is a well known phenomenon that became famous during the various iterations of Star Trek (which gave rise to the actual term “redshirt,” due to these expendable crewmembers’ uniforms) but has a long and sordid history throughout fiction due to authors’ and other creative types’ understandable reluctance to kill off their protagonists. (There are related tropes, such as Black Dude Dies First, that are motivated by even more sordid concerns but there’s no need to get into that here.)

The basic premise of Redshirts is that the redshirts are the protagonists of this book. They slowly start realizing the extreme hazards of their menial positions, as well as the confounding invincibility of the captain, science officer, chief engineer, etc. And, as new crewmembers quickly discover, there is an informal and very creepy assignment system to ensure that the guaranteed-to-be-fatal Away Missions are given to the newbies who haven’t yet copped to the problem.

So far this sounds like a pretty thin basis for a story — and it would be if that’s all there was. But Scalzi does a couple of things. First he takes the story on a bizarre meta-fictional turn that many people won’t like; I was only lukewarm to it myself. But then, in the midst of this postmodern twist, he reaches for the heart strings and really scores a punch.

What I’ve always liked about Scalzi is his total lack of fear about big emotions. He doesn’t care about being melodramatic or mushy or whatever. He just swings for it, portraying love, loyalty, passion, what have you — without irony, and with complete conviction in the rightness of his characters’ feelings. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you end up feeling a little bit left out. But more often than not his novels end up feeling big and warm and emotionally fulfilling, and it’s all because he’s ballsy enough to have his characters feel, and feel hard.

This book is no different. All sorts of characters, in all sorts of bizarre ways, get the opportunity to confront their deepest fears and desires (that’s why the book needs “three codas,” as its subtitle promises). It’s artificial and manipulative — and, for reasons that escape rational explanation, effective. Redshirts won’t work for everybody, but it worked for me.

★★★★☆

The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias

Here is a test. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account that paid an interest rate of 2% a year. If you leave the money in the account, how much would you have accumulated after five years: more than $102, exactly $102, or less than $102?

This test might seem a little simple for readers of The Economist. But a survey found that only half of Americans aged over 50 gave the correct answer. If so many people are mathematically challenged, it is hardly surprising that they struggle to deal with the small print of mortgage and insurance contracts.

The solution seems obvious: provide more financial education. The British government just added financial literacy to the national school curriculum, to general acclaim. But is it possible to teach people to be more financially savvy? A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland reported that: “Unfortunately, we do not find conclusive evidence that, in general, financial education programmes do lead to greater financial knowledge and ultimately to better financial behaviour.”

115463-LThat quotation, from an article in this week’s Economist, gives me an excuse to mention the best personal finance book I’ve ever read: Andrew Tobias’s The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need. Self-aggrandizing title aside, the book is genuinely fabulous because it is hard-headed, practical, and best of all right.

Here are the takeaways from Tobias’s book:

1. There are no get-rich-quick schemes. Your goal should not be to become rich, but to become financially secure.

2. Forget about the stock market and other fancy investments. Instead, earn more than you spend. Then reduce your spending even more. It is easier to save a dollar than to make one.

3. If you must invest, put your money in low-cost, broad-based index funds, every month, for the rest of your working life, regardless of market conditions. (This is known as dollar cost averaging.) You are not smart enough to make money on fancier investments — and this includes ordinary blue-chip stocks.

And that’s basically it. (The book actually goes into some more advice on specific stock-picking tips, but I found that inconsistent with its earlier message so just ignored it.)

The one thing that I don’t believe the book really covers is the corrosive effect of comparing yourself with others. Who hasn’t felt a little bit envious of a friend who happened to purchase a ton of Apple stock on the cheap, or the co-worker who somehow manages to flip her house every few years at enormous profits? But the truth is that these are all distractions. There are always people who get lucky. Your goal shouldn’t be to chase that luck — a path that usually leads to disaster — but rather to control what you can and be conservative with growth options.

What does all this have to do with the opening quotation? What Tobias’s book does a good job explaining, especially in the opening chapters, is that personal finance isn’t some kind of mysterious alchemy. Sure, there are always new ways of making (and losing) money. But the basic principles that guide your decisions should be simple, practical, and most of all immune to fads. Save more. Spend less. And don’t sink your money into risks you don’t understand.

(Also, understand that 2% interest compounded over 5 years will get you a little more than  $10 on top of your $100 investment.)

★★★★☆

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

6419375-LEarly in Alastair Reynold’s House of Suns, one of the protagonists, Campion, is asked to describe himself. “I was born six million years ago,” he says, “one of a thousand male and female clones of Abigail Gentian.”

That line signals the awesome scale of Reynolds’s latest science fiction extravaganza. Campion is a member of the Gentian Line, a network of clones that is distributed across the galaxy. The clones make long, sub-luminal loops among planetary systems, convening only every couple of thousand years for a grand reunion in which they merge their collective knowledge and set priorities for the next great cycle.

What the Gentians do with so much time at their disposal is build huge, mind-boggling infrastructure. House of Suns begins with a negotiation between Campion and a centaur-like race about the construction of a “stardam” — a massive shell, built around an aging sun, that is strong enough to contain a supernova. At a later point, Purslane, another clone, contemplates how her brothers and sisters could commemorate her demise: “They might etch my face across the surface of a planet, or blow an image of me into the gas of a nebula, or even shape a supernova remnant into my likeness. It had all been done before.”

But Reynolds doesn’t stop there. The Gentian Line is impressive, but they are hardly alone in the universe. Early in the novel, Campion visits the Vigilance, a race of massive barely-humans who have constructed an artificial solar system dedicated to collecting knowledge. Later, Purslane and Campion encounter a member of the Machine People, beautiful constructs with convincingly alien thought patterns and a vicious tendency to react with total war against their enemies.

What is most impressive about House of Suns is the way that its plot — essentially an intergalactic murder mystery — has a scope as vast as its setting. The mystery begins with a genuinely shocking large-scale crime. To solve it, Purslane and Campion must cross light-years, endure endless millennia, and unravel secrets that have resisted discovery even against the collective might of the Vigilance. And the incredible resolution of the mystery makes even these unimaginable times and distances seem as pedestrian as a walk in the park.

House of Suns still suffers from Reynolds’s typical flaws, including emotionally chilly characters (everybody feels like a Machine Person). But as a showcase of Reynolds’s strengths — universe-building, plot, and the all-important sense of wonder — House of Suns is the best book that he has written yet.

★★★★☆