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What I’m reading: The triumph of the human spirit

New York 2140 (2017) / Kim Stanley Robinson
The Incrementalists (2013) / Steven Brust & Skyler White
The Skill of Our Hands: A Novel (2017)/ Steven Brust & Skyler White

Now that the semester is over, y’all might see some book reviews from me.

In fact, I have an eighteen-book review backlog right now, and I’m abandoning any attempt at reviewing in the order in which I read and writing them up in whatever order I feel inspired. Good? Here goes.

If you feel like genre SFF is at times too apocalyptic and dark, this might just be the cure: three of the most powerfully uplifting books I’ve read in a long time.

There is nothing that is quite so satisfying as digging into a new work by a favorite author. And reading KSR is like watching an elite athlete in competition: How does he DO that? Is that even possible? Did he really – holy shit he really just did that.

Remember when I complained about how clunky and uncomfortable Allan Steele’s mid-novel shift from third person to first person was?

Y’all. Robinson rotates, through this book, between six POVs: one in first person/past tense, three in third person/past tense, one in third person/present tense, and one in first person/present tense, and it works. It’s BONKERS, but it works! It also weighs in at a substantial 613 pages, and there is no waste anywhere whatsoever: the story clips along at a smooth and brisk but never quite breathtaking pace, and the famous infodumps are fascinating and delightful (that’s the first-person-present-tense: some unidentified New Yorker, deliciously snarky, tremendously knowledgeable about the past and future history of the city, with a wry, bemused, and deeply rooted affection for it).

If I haven’t put you off or intimidated you yet, you will almost certainly love this book. It’s about a group of neighbors living in one building in the “SuperVenice,” the area of New York that is fully flooded after two pulses of sea level rise, canals where streets used to be, a mixed-use, mixed-class neighborhood and a diverse, smart, funny group of people who have almost nothing in common except the will to live in one of the most interesting communities in the world, driven by risk and possibility and change and yet deeply grounded in history and the culture of the city. There’s a streaming-video reality show star (her reality show is about flying around the world in a blimp rescuing animal populations from disintegrating habitats, but her claim to fame is being a bit of a hottie airhead with a tendency to strip off her clothes mid-program, who is actually – of course – quite a sharp cookie), a police captain, two big-data coders (who are kidnapped on almost the first page, fairly quickly involving the police captain in their story), the totally badass building super with a heartbreaking and intriguing past, a well-meaning prat of a flashy rich-boy broker (who is ostensibly, if not the protag, at least the audience proxy – his story is the first-person-past-tense – but is the most predictable and least interesting character in the book), the housing advocate who’s living right down in the weeds with the people she’s advocating for (and she and the reality show star are my favorite characters and they are awesome together) and there are two pre-teen boys, actual honest-to-goodness street (or, rather, canal) urchins, parentless and more or less homeless but adopted by the building as a whole like feral cats, who stumble into the mystery that ties the whole thing together and may just transform the entire city.

It’s a sweet and funny slice-of-life novel, it’s a mystery (actually it’s several), it’s an extremely technical and deeply geeky hard sci-fi novel, it’s ecofic, it’s history and anthropology on a par with and yet utterly different than Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, which is one of my favorite novels of all time. It’s relentlessly joyful. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

I came across The Incrementalists entirely by accident – actually I picked up The Skill of Our Hands first and found out it was a sequel and immediately put the first one on hold. It went like:

*standing at the circ desk* “Oh, that cover over there on the new shelf is pretty.” *wanders over*

“That title. I love that title.”

“Steven Brust! A Stephen Brust that isn’t Vlad Taltos? That’s interesting.”

“I know exactly where the photo this cover is based on was taken from.”

*reads blurb* “This is a thing I need in my life.”

The Incrementalists are a group of people – about two hundred, world-wide – who have weird and fraught sort of immortality: when they die, they are able (with the help of a ritual carried out by other Incrementalists) to implant their memories into a consenting and cooperative host. Over the course of the ritual either the personality of the host or that of the dead person emerges as ascendant – with all of the memories of both intact. The dead person, with more life experience and memories and understanding of what is happening, tends to ascend, experiencing a continuity of identity in a new body – but not without some subtle transformation, because some experience and identitity is, of course, embodied. But, occasionally, the new body’s inherent personality ascends and the dead person “shades,” or becomes part of the background body of memory and experience that the new person internalizes.

They’ve been doing this for forty thousand years. They possess, amongst themselves, a comprehensive collective memory of the modern human species. Over time, they’ve developed some ethics, and some ideas about how things should be. They all have strong, and often conflicting, opinions. They’ve gotten really good at manipulating people and circumstances. They’ve also learned that trying to change the world for the better always, always, without exception, has untended consequences, and that their superior experience and perspective does not necessarily make the superior people. And, so, hence “incrementalists” – they do try to make the world a better place, because to not try would be evil in another way, but always in small, careful, constrained, considered ways.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway. They’re also very human.

These books are about good and evil, but not in some supernatural sense: they’re entirely about the good and evil within us, about honor and temptation, the lingering damage of emotional abuse and the power of love, the morality of manipulation and control and the danger of thinking we know what’s best for someone else, about disagreeing with respect and about standing our ground when we must. They’re about choosing to be in the world, choosing to own consequences of our actions.

I loved these books so much I set them down and cried when I finished. I want to believe that there are people in the world who are, with formidable wisdom and deep knowledge and relentless determination, doing their very best to leave the world better than they found it, working very hard at having a nuanced and humble idea of what “better” means, who have respect and consideration for those whose idea of “better” is different than theirs, but do not let that paralyze them with self-doubt and inaction.

I want to believe that I can be one of those people.









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